With awareness and education, online anonymity does more good than harm
Anonymity is used well before the Internet so that people could express themselves freely and protect their own privacy in certain political and social contexts. On another hand, anonymity can be used to perpetrate crime and violate privacy. Anonymity is a double-edged knife.
Protection vs. credibility
In Syria, most activists used alias names to conceal their identities, including me. Anonymity, in this case, was used as a method to protect an activist operating inside Syria from being arrested and imprisoned¹, and used by activists outside Syria to protect family members inside Syria, or to avoid bullying online and offline. However, the issue of credibility was raised. A committed individual to a cause, or an activist, who uses a pseudonym needs time to prove that the information he/she providing is not made up. The dictatorship exploited this doubt by assigning a group of its supporters to pretend that they were activists and publish unreal news, pictures, and even videos in order to weaken any trust an anonymous activist may have gained.
But did anonymity by itself protect the activists, especially those working inside Syria? The Syrian regime used the Internet to track activists, even the anonymous ones. A piece of Skype encryption software downloaded by Syrian activists was later discovered to be malware that allows the attacker to capture webcam activity, steal passwords and accounts and send it all to a Syrian IP address.² I remember how this affected many activists and in Syria; even if the activist used an anonymous name, his identity could be revealed by tracking the IP address if a proxy bypass was not used.
A Syrian activist who specialises in IT and works in spreading awareness about Internet security among Syrian civil activists, said in an interview that using a pseudonym is not as effective as using certain protection programmes like TOR.³ He added that news published by activists using alias names are not recognised as official and documented.
In my opinion, anonymity can narrow the range of cyber attackers. It will conceal one's identity from the inexperienced users in IT, or those who violently disagree with one's opinions, so their harmful impact will not likely extend past sending hate messages.
Empowerment vs. cyberbullying and harassment
The Internet can provide a medium for different groups of people to gain support and self-empowerment. From my personal experience with an online women’s group, I know that anonymity can give a voice to more vulnerable groups in society such as women, ethnic minorities, and even whistleblowers.
I used a pseudonym myself during my activities with an organisation called World Pulse to train women to be the voice of their communities as citizen journalists. It was a hub for women from all around the world to share their experiences and hardships. Some of the women had been subjected to rape and sexual harassment and wanted to share their experiences and hear from other women, sharing in a healing process together after going through such painful experiences. Other women living in conservative communities hide their identities when sharing a simple opinion that might be considered offensive to the entire tribe or family, and the woman might be punished for that. Women seek advice, consultation, opportunities, ideas, and empowerment.
In another example, a study showed that social media can provide children with social and identity development, and this would encourage civic involvement later.⁴
Anonymity can also help patients who want to talk about certain health conditions but don’t want to identify themselves. Patient suffering from a disease transmitted sexually or from drug addiction might seek help and comfort online while still keeping their identities private.
But anonymity can be used for gender-based bullying and sexual harassment. The Internet can provide a good cover for pathological behaviours. All over social networks many people believe that they can say almost everything they want as long as their identities are disguised online. Currently in the MENA region, social media is full of curses, humiliations, bad language, bullying and harassment. The sectarian issue in the region is stirring online name-calling and hate messages. Although this hostility is also expressed offline, online it gets uglier under hidden identities.
One statement about sexual harassment argued that "the phenomenon of sexual harassment on the Internet downplays the positive process of empowerment that women gain from egalitarian use of the Internet."⁵ Any woman online might be harassed as the perpetrators think they can get away with it as long as no one knows who the perpetrator is.
Anonymity is also used to hide the identities of online child abuses. A study showed that 1 in every 5 children who use the Internet might be approached sexually since the predators go online with less risk and constraints they might face in the real world because of the anonymous nature of the Internet⁶. Anonymity on the other hand, is also used by police and child protection groups to monitor and catch predators hiding behind their screens.
There is also the issue of accountability when going anonymous online. One viewpoint states that to hold someone accountable and be brought to justice, then he/she should be identified. If people remain anonymous, then they will not be identified and it will be impossible to hold them accountable when they commit a crime.⁷ The previous point claims that anonymity might threaten society’s freedom.
Do you want to appear online?
Though the latter point might be taken into consideration, but it is an exaggeration to claim it will threaten the freedom of a society. Being anonymous is a free decision and act, especially in today's cyberspace where one can appear just by a simple search on Google. An employer can check you out, a friend or a foe can find you online when you provide your name. Anonymity provides you with privacy to express your thoughts freely in conservative or politically oppressed atmospheres without further implications in the real world.
Writing with a real name will associate the writer with content, enforced accountability and prevents bad Internet practices. Online anonymity will allow expression of opinion without repercussion, fuels creativity and experimentation, and encourage authentic content sharing⁸.
In my opinion, anonymity must be allowed and practiced, however, laws must be made to protect anonymous freedom of expression and at the same time prevent cyberbullying and harassment. Parents and teachers must talk to their kids on how to protect themselves and report when they are approached in an inappropriate way. Spreading awareness in the issue of anonymity is crucial for protection and respect while engaging in the larger world online.
1- Syrian Activists Remain Anonymous Amid Opposition Work - Hama, Syria
2- In Syria, the Cyberwar Intensifies
3- التكنولوجيا والثورة السورية
4- Kids online: Social media sites can help develop identity, study says
5- Sexual Harassment on the Internet
6- Sexual Predators: Using Internet Anonymity to Lure Kids
7- Anonymity on the Internet: Why the Price May Be Too High
8- Infographic: The Pros and Cons of Online & Social Anonymity vs. Transparency