Social media, abuse, anonymity and freedom.

by George Hatjoullis


Masked. (Photo credit: .Andi.)

The use of social media has brought with it abusive communications. This is not new. Nuisance telephone calls have been with us for a long time and I do not recall BT ever apologising to anyone. It is the abuser that is responsible for the abuse not the medium. It is ironic that with all this concern about the erosion of cyber-space privacy that it is anonymity, or perceptions of anonymity, that encourage this abuse.

The role of the mask in human behaviour was made explicit to me in my youth (O-Level GCE to be exact) when reading and studying William Golding‘s ‘ Lord of the Flies‘. Sociopathic behaviour amongst a group of plane-wrecked boys is unleashed by the use of masks. The mask relieves the wearer of social inhibitions and unleashes uninhibited primal behaviour. So it seems does cyber-anonymity.

Telephones offer the facility to withhold the number of the caller. I make a point of never responding to a call from a withheld number. Why should someone want to withhold their telephone number from me? Why should they be allowed to do so and yet have the right to call me? Something not quite right about this. The same issue applies in cyber space.

Newspapers allow comments on articles using pseudonyms. The comments are apparently moderated and of course one needs an email to set up an account. Nevertheless many comments are quite vile and designed to offend. Even a partial mask relieves people of inhibitions. What would the comments look like if people had to make them in their own name I wonder?

The same issue applies with Twitter. An account requires some information and that information should, in principle, be traceable to a person. Yet many post their tweets anonymously, behind a mask, and this encourages partially uninhibited expression of thought. Should this be possible?

Twitter has a spam button and a block button. They both work very well. It also allows the account holder to screen followers. You do not need to accept everyone as a follower. You do not need to follow everyone. These facilities do not entirely eliminate the possibility of ever receiving tweets that you might prefer not to receive but they go a long way.

A ‘report abuse’ button is also in principle a very good idea but to whom would you be reporting? Who would moderate? The volume of tweets is enormous and who is to judge what is abusive? Threat of violence is clear but other tweets that we find offensive may not legally constitute abuse. Who is to decide and what will then happen?

One solution would be to remove anonymity from social media. Remove the mask and reimpose the social inhibitions. Of course, this then runs into problems at the other end of the spectrum. Social media has played a positive role in enabling resistance to ‘autocratic’ regimes. These regimes also seek to remove anonymity, albeit for less positive reasons.

The ability to communicate anonymously through social media is a mixed blessing. It facilitates freedom of expression and social resistance. It removes inhibitions and exposes us all to sociopathic behaviour. It protects us from abuse by the state and opens us up to abuse by mentally maladjusted individuals. It is important that both issues be considered simultaneously and not addressed as if they are separate problems. There is no perfect solution.