Anonymous abuse, real damage?

I read two articles recently which made me start thinking about the nature of anonymity and how it brings out the worst in some of us.

The New York Times had an interesting article about anonymous insults on blogs and the question of how to deal with them.  The article talks about an ad agency executive, Paul Tilley, who committed suicide last month.  Some people wonder whether his suicide was a result of comments made by a blogger called Agency Spy, who is an anonymous advertising industry employee.

No one knows who Agency Spy is, and what his motives are for his abusive comments.  For all you know, he could be a competitor, or a junior or mid-level executive who could have been working with Paul, but never had the courage to criticize Paul in person.  His blog, on the other hand, gives him a platform to speak freely because of his very anonymity.  He has exercised this freedom, without considering any of the responsibilities that come with it.

The second article I read was a Washington Post article about a website called Juicy Campus, where anonymous posters share campus gossip.  This is invariably salacious gossip slandering classmates, mostly women.  The anonymous commenters name specific classmates and question their character and morals.  The website itself disclaims any responsibility for the comments posted on it, though it does encourage people to “give us the juice”.

In both these cases, the people who made these remarks are anonymous, but the people they are targeting are not.  So the targets have no way of calling the attackers out.  We do not know what the motives of the attackers are, and we have no idea about their credibility.

But the mud they fling remains.  If you fling enough mud on anyone, and if you keep flinging it repeatedly, people think some of it will stick.  The charges themselves may be completely untrue, but at least some readers will believe them.  We always tend to believe that there is a kernel of truth in gossip.  “There is no smoke without fire”, we think, but what if there were never any fire, just a smokescreen?

This could become a serious problem if the wrong people read these allegations and believe them.  Think of a scenario in which, in the first case, a client of Paul Tilley believes Agency Spy, or in the second case, a recruiter who is googling a college graduate’s name as part of employment verification comes across the campus gossip.

I don’t have an issue with Agency Spy or anyone else choosing to remain anonymous.  We all have our reasons, and in fact, I blog anonymously too, so my issue is not with the cloak of anonymity that some of us wear.

But behind the cloak of anonymity, most of us still remain the same person we are in real life.  We are still responsible for all our actions online.

But some people think differently.  To them, the cloak of anonymity is more like The Mask, except in this case it brings out their inner troll.  They use anonymity to post blog posts and comments that range from the stupid to the abusive to the depraved.  They do this because they do not have to face the consequences of their actions.   They would prefer to do a drive-by-insult rather than a stand-and-fight.

Obviously, none of these people would ever have the courage to say any of these things if their identity were revealed.

The very fact that they would prefer to insult people anonymously also shows that somewhere in the far reaches of their minds, they know that this is not the way to argue or behave.  They are embarrassed to have their real-life identity linked to their behavior.

I think of these guys in the same way I do the middle-aged, avuncular looking guys in the bus, who find that crowded buses (or trains) are the perfect opportunity to grope women.  They know they are anonymous, because it is difficult to pinpoint the perpetrator in the crowd.

Such people are disgusting.   But sometimes, apart from disgust, I feel another emotion – pity.  Why do these people have such twisted minds, I wonder.  Why do they have so much hate, anger and cynicism bottled up inside them?   Why do they make their days miserable by spewing negative emotions, when they could be thinking happier thoughts?

In the end, there is nothing much we can do about such people.  Perhaps we don’t even need to.  They are punishing themselves much more than we would ever have the heart to.

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8 thoughts on “Anonymous abuse, real damage?

  1. “Anonymous” is the author of some of the best poems and sayings in the language. That, of course, is a different kind of anonymity.

  2. Anonymity *should* not translate to idiotic behavior. But it will and does. Which is why good communities like Metafilter are going to be around for a very long time.

    I may sound like an old man but online folks were much nicer back in 1995. There was a lot more etiquette. (People minded CAPS LOCK back then. Ha.)

  3. @Candadai: Good point.

    @Lekhni: While I agree with you in that people do take advantage of anonymity, the victims shouldn’t take such comments seriously enough to drive them to something as drastic as suicide. We need to live life a little more lightly; otherwise we will never get out alive.

  4. Candadai Tirumalai: Oh yes, “Anonymous” is a person of many facets 😉 He/ she has authored great poems and quotes, but sometimes also sends threatening letters and phone calls 😛

    km: You make a good case for why internet should not be available to the masses 😉

    One Trick Pony: Typical red state solution. Actually, I am not even sure if it’s a solution. What happens if website owners decide they don’t like anycriticism and say to commenters “I know where you live!!” ?

    ArSENik: I agree people should not take comments too seriously – I don’t think Paul Tilley committed suicide when he read Agency Spy’s comments. But my point is that they can cause professional harm.

  5. Very true. As a male blogger, I have not experienced much but female bloggers take a brunt of the attacks from haters and trolls…. and many of them give up blogging due to the constant barrage of insults. One of my friends (female) as recently as this week quit blogging because of this.

    The choice to use a handle rather than my real name was due to professional reasons solely, and I check every other day to make sure that Google results off my name don’t point to something I wouldn’t want an employer to read. If you have ‘edit’ control over all the content that mentions your name, that is fine … but unfortunately, anyone in the world can write something about you without consequences.

    I hope that Juicy Campus site isn’t open to search engines – for if it is, it can cause a hell of a lot of damage.

  6. Randomizer: It’s sad to see someone being forced to quit blogging because of trolls. My own way is to just delete such comments if a quick look tells me it’s a troll. Akismet is quite good at doing this too. Going through the trouble of writing a long comment and then finding it has not been published must surely be discouraging enough.

    Indian Homemaker: Yes, it’s sad. Which is why I almost never respond to trolls, I just delete their comments. I am sure I am doing them also a favor 😉

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