Anonymity and Social Media

by George Hatjoullis

The removal of inhibition that is possible through wearing a mask has long been understood. When warriors wear masks it is not simply to scare the opposition but also to release a suppressed, darker, inner self. Psychodynamic theory is based on the existence of an unconscious mind, formed in the early years of life, often full of frightening objects. Psychoanalysis treats psychopathology by identifying how this unconscious is leaking into the conscious world and revealing this to the ‘patient’. A mask seems to release the unconscious fully into the conscious world. Not all psychologists accept psychodynamic theory nor is it necessary in order to grasp the significance of a mask. Identity is central to all psychology, irrespective to which theory of identity formation one subscribes. Identity is who we decide to be in the world of social relations. It comes with accountability. A mask allows us to be someone else, free of the inhibitions of accountability. It allows the darker places in our unconscious to act directly in the conscious world.

My first proper encounter with the mask was at the age of 15 and studying for O-level English literature. The set book was William Golding’s, ‘Lord of the Flies’. It later dawned on me that the mask plays a central role in many of Shakespeare’s plays. The mask is ubiquitous. Social media has given the mask a new and dangerous power. In the process, social media has unleashed some dark forces lurking in the individual and collective psyche. It has provided a vehicle for combining the individual psyche into one really scary force. It has provided bullying with a whole new dimension. The problem lies not within social media per se, but the mask it allows. It needs to stop providing a mask and insist that all public cyber communications are performed unmasked. Posting on public platforms anonymously should be prohibited.

Full anonymity is, of course, not possible. People are traceable. However, there are costs to tracing so it happens less than it might. Merely insisting on full name and city of location will remove a huge amount of abuse and bullying. Accountability is restored and people will take consequences into account before they post. There is no need for censorship. The law of the land, and social practices and inhibitions will deal with the trolls. Many will scream of the infringement of privacy but it is not an infringement. If you stand in the street shouting obscenities and threatening sexual violence to someone in particular you can be arrested (in most countries). Public social media is just a cyber street so why should you be allowed to behave any differently?

The main downside to losing anonymity, which I fully acknowledge, is in the political power of anonymous posting. Social media has made possible resistance to some oppressive regimes. However, it has also been used by some devious forces. It is still a cyber street however it is used. Nothing comes without cost. The alternative might be aggressive and arbitrary censorship or to allow cyber bullying and violence and drive some people off social media. I favour removing anonymity and making people accountable.