“ …does anonymity also lead to a place where, because you are anonymous, people who are harassed or sexually harassed or [from] marginalized communities also face more trolling? In the sense, because of anonymity online, does that also leads to more trolling? …Obviously it’s a safe space and you can open up there but does that also lead to other people or individuals be more open trolls online?” This was the question sparked by Pallavi Bedi, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), on online anonymity and potential harms.
Bedi, along with many other privacy experts, was speaking at MediaNama’s roundtable discussion on ‘Exploring User Verification’ on March 23, 2023. During the event, Bedi wanted to look at the flip side of the argument that online anonymity helps open-up members of the LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized communities.
No single stand on anonymity: Speaking on this topic, Pranesh Prakash, Co-Founder of the CIS, said that there is no single position of the LGBTQIA+ community on the question of anonymity across all cases.
In some cases, anonymity is seen as a problem that leads to harassment of women. In other cases like the age-appropriate code of California in the US, LGBTQIA activists criticised the verification. Referring to Pew Research Centre surveys, Prakash claimed that 85 percent of Americans feel that anonymity helps people discuss sensitive questions online freely. However, 89 percent of Americans also state that anonymity facilitates harassment and cruelty.
“Both can equally be true and people feel strongly about both at the same time,” said Prakash.
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Identification can have a chilling effect on speech: While Prakash and Bedi talked about the potential harms of anonymity, Jhalak Kakkar, Executive Director at the Centre for Communications Governance, talked about how the lack of anonymity could impact online speech.
She argued that it has a particularly chilling effect on individuals from marginalized backgrounds, and their ability to navigate, use, and leverage the internet for social benefit within their communities. Kakkar gave the example of an earlier real-name policy of major social media platforms that faced criticisms from various communities like transgender folk and victims of domestic abuse.
“We saw that they were using aliases to hide from the abusers and when the real names policy came out, they criticized this policy and actually there have been sort of documentation of the fact that this policy did actually facilitate harassment, physical violence towards vulnerable users, and actually resulted in marginalized and vulnerable individuals getting kicked off the platform and losing access to support groups and resources,” she said.
Can verification lead to more accountability?
Another argument put forward by Vijayant Singh, Senior Associate at Ikigai Law, was whether anonymity really played a significant role in identifying the trolls online. He said that the proponents of having more verification are typically communities that are closer to “the centre of power, closer to the majority as well” as opposed to say people from marginalized communities.
“This contradiction of sort is, I guess what I wanted to bring out because a lot of the people that are actually imposing hateful speech or objectionable content on these communities are actually not even anonymous,” said Singh.
Singh emphasized questioning verification’s role in accountability. He also stressed that politics, society, culture, and how we think of communities are important considerations when framing the debate on anonymity vs verification.
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