The Vital Need For Online Anonymity

The dangers involved in forcing people to use real names online far outweigh the benefits.

Hello. I’m Kath—only I’m not. Kath is a pseudonym that I use exclusively online. There are people, such as Margaret Hodge MP, who believe I should not be permitted to use this pseudonym. They argue that I should use my real name online because they think that it will prevent harm.

Harm is a complicated subject. I use this pseudonym because I believe it protects me from harm. Specifically, the harm that would be perpetrated against me by certain religious fanatics I, unfortunately, share a last name with. See, I’m a girl who likes to fuck girls. This shouldn’t be a problem, right? It’s [insert current year], and we’re all tolerant and, and… well, no, we’re not.

Ignoring my personal problems here, let’s consider the idea of just how tolerant society is. Some of the people reading this will have harmless fetishes. Maybe they like feet, or they want to rub one out while sniffing panties, or they could even like to watch people fuck while dressed as pandas (that’s an actual website – I’ve seen it). None of these things are particularly harmful – unless you want to fuck an actual panda, in which case, that’s your funeral. To society, however, these things are weird. At best, they’re something to be embarrassed about, and at worst, they get you marked as a skeevy little pervert.

Consequently, we don’t generally talk about our sexual curiosities with the broader world. We keep that shit to ourselves, or we might join specialist forums, subreddits, or social media communities. When we do the latter, we will almost certainly use a fake name. Of course we will. We don’t want our boss, our friends, or our families to find out what we wank our plank or flick our bean to, do we? Yet it’s sometimes nice to find and connect with people who have similar interests because it helps to undo some of the damage perpetrated against us by the society all-too-willing to judge us as weirdos and perverts.

It’s not just sex that results in judgement – it’s everything. When you apply for a job, you send a CV with the hope that you’ll be judged on your qualifications, experience, commitment, determination, etc. Generally speaking, you don’t send a photo with your application because what you look like shouldn’t matter.

Over on LinkedIn, however, how you look matters immensely. Far fewer people will view your profile unless you put up a picture and that picture is a fucking gatekeeper. The first judgement people make won’t be on the quality of your profile, your experience, your commitment, etc. It’ll be on your skin colour, gender, and yes, on how attractive you are. Sexy people do better on LinkedIn – it’s a fact.

A name also betrays parts of us that we might want to keep to ourselves. Most names indicate gender, some go further and indicate race, some are rightly or wrongly attached to socio-economic cohorts. If your name is Charmaine, then people will jump to conclusions about who you are. Your education, intelligence, social standing, and even your values can and will be inferred from something as stupid and simplistic as a fucking name.

Put the name ‘Cletus Van Damme’ on your next CV and see whether you get asked in for an interview. Even if that is your real name and you’re not just a big fan of The Shield, I’m guessing it’ll be a bit of a handicap.

That simplistic assessment can have considerable implications on how welcome your input is in any debate. Your voice can be silenced because of your name. If you are obviously a man, then no radical feminist will entertain your views for a second on sex work. You could have done all the research into the various models and conducted a thorough in-depth study citing primary, secondary, and tertiary sources and making an informed, rational conclusion. But hey, you’re a man, and thus if you have anything to say on sex work it’s because you’re a porn addict who visits prostitutes, isn’t it?

That latter line might not be correct, but it doesn’t matter. There will be plenty of people who deem your input into a subject unwelcome, no matter how well-informed it is, because your name tells them that you’re not the right type to be having an opinion, mate. Your voice is suppressed unless you can contribute to a discussion anonymously. Only then can your words be considered without inherent prejudice. How does silencing people prevent harm?

Of course, even though Margaret’s argument forms the foundation of a hell of a lot of additional prejudice, underrepresentation, and outright dismissal of conflicting points of view, she argues that it’s to protect women from abuse online… so let’s examine this argument.

I don’t know whether Margaret is correct and that women are, by far, the biggest victims of online abuse. Experience tells me it’s probably true, but I’m wary of committing to the idea because report after report demonstrates that emotional turmoil and bullying experienced by men is underreported and underacknowledged. Again, it’s one of society’s more self-defeating and harmful beliefs – that men should just buck the fuck up.

Forgive me, then, that I accept the premise of Margaret’s argument without a thorough evaluation of its merit. For the purposes of this, accepting it makes it easy to dispute. If women are in more danger from abuse online, how the fuck does making it easier to dox them help?

That is what she’s arguing for, and we’ve seen this happen. Even if you felt that the journalists targeted during the Gamergate palaver acted unethically, I would hope that you wouldn’t condone the doxing of home addresses and the campaign of terror waged against them as a result? It’s not even a one-time thing. Former Countdown champion Richard Brittain drove hundreds of miles to batter a supermarket worker over a fucking book review. Dickheads have called in SWAT teams over video game disputes, and people have died as a result.

When a Blizzard employee attempted to defend his company’s proposal that all World of Warcraft players would have to share their real name to use the game’s chat function, he shared his personal details in a ‘no big deal, lads’ way. Only, it turned out, it was a big deal. Within hours, his home address, educational history, details about his family, and – if I recall correctly – his criminal record was published in response. Blizzard quickly walked back that stupid idea.

There are tangible harms too. Thousands of women and men experience domestic violence every year. Melissa Benoist, an actress who plays Supergirl on the eponymous TV show, once sat on a talk show, retelling a funny story about how she permanently injured her eye. The audience laughed, and Melissa came across as a loveable dork willing to poke fun at her clumsiness. It was nice in a way… only it wasn’t true. Melissa’s injury resulted from her now ex-husband hurling a phone at her face during an escalating, multi-year campaign of psychological and physical violence against her.

This woman in the public eye suffered in silence for years. Like many in her position, she explained her injuries with elaborate fabrications. Many of us know somebody who seems to always have a new bruise, who appears to be a bit of a clutz, who must make excuses to not spend time with us. We wonder about them, but we can’t help them because we can’t confirm our suspicions, and they’ll fight us before they fight the person we suspect is abusing them.

I don’t know what prompted Melissa to get out of that relationship, but I do know that for many, it’s the comfort and strength that they can find online from simply not being alone. Many men and women share their stories of abuse, and more importantly, they share resources, information, and courage to extricate other victims from those environments. They can’t do that safely if they are forced to publicly out themselves. Many of these people are vulnerable, both to their own victimisers and those absolute cunts out there who take pleasure in heaping misery on the miserable.

Because, even if everyone was using a real ID, it doesn’t mean anything. You don’t know when I’ve been reading your tweets, do you? You don’t know what I might do with that information. The Swatting victims had no idea that heavily armed police officers were on route. Ella Durant didn’t know that an angry author was travelling cross-country to try and murder her in broad daylight. Joss Stone didn’t know that two men had decided to kill her until, by pure chance, the police stopped them. And I’m not fond of myself for using this example, but Jo Cox didn’t know Thomas Mair had been collecting all the information he needed to know precisely when to strike.

It’s not always the people who are actively abusing you that you need to worry about. Some are content to sit, wait, watch, and plot. If they’re determined enough to hurt you, you’ll never see them coming. Not revealing your name online can be vital to protecting yourself from those who mean you harm.

We’d like to think that these incidents are the exception. They are attributable to a minority of dangerous individuals, and it’s just an example of the slippery-slope fallacy. However, to ignore what’s happened before seems negligent. How many people are we willing to put at risk to stop @DeezNutzB1tch from insulting us online? In 2018, 173 people died from domestic violence, the majority of them women. For those who escaped, what reassurance can Margaret Hodge offer that they can live their online life without fear if they are forced to declare who they are?

None. Some will accept the risk and continue. Others, who have stories that need to be heard, will feel they have no choice but to hide – like the countless men and women in Hollywood who hid the abuse they suffered at the hands of studio executives, A-list performers, casting directors and other individuals who weaponised hope and ambition and turned the Dream Factory into a nightmare… until some, mostly anonymous, people spoke up in a New York Times article and shone a light on decades of abuse.

Anonymity, for some, is the only way you can regain power over those who wronged you.

I get that if you’re a public figure, and you receive abuse every day, that must stink. It must be awful and soul-destroying to wake up, check your social feed and see a torrent of abuse aimed at you for no defensible reason.

However, there are so many people – domestic violence victims, LGBTQ refugees from intolerant families, whistleblowers, sex workers, teenagers experiencing mental health problems, drug addicts, people with politically unpopular opinions, and more – who rely on that anonymity to get help, build support, expose injustice, keep their jobs, and stay safe. Take that away from them and you are being just as cruel as the people who are being cruel to you.

There is one final argument to address – the idea that we can just provide our ID to Twitter, and only they know who we are. First, that’s not foolproof. A quick gander at HaveIBeenPwned shows billions of compromised user details, many from reputable websites like LinkedIn. Second, I’m not convinced that providing a massive data harvesting operation our most personal data doesn’t have unforeseen consequences. That data could be linked, easily, to all sorts that we might want kept to ourselves.

More importantly, even if you think hacking and data harvesting are minor concerns, what about the government themselves?

You might trust this government, but can you be sure you’ll trust the next one, or the one after that? Facebook has a real name policy and is one of the largest purveyors of fake news, abuse, batshit crazy conspiracy theories and other potential harms. Most people use their real names; they just don’t really care about the shit they’re saying when they think they’re justified in saying it. LinkedIn has a real name and a real photo policy and is rife with sexual harassment and other significant problems. It turns out real names do little to stem abuse.

Thus, when this move fails to address the problem because all current evidence says it won’t, what happens then? Well, the only logical move is for the government of the day to simply force Twitter to change everyone’s name to their real ID, which we’ll have given them, and there will be no rolling it back.

Consequently, all the hypotheticals I speak of above become very fucking real.


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One comment

  1. I use my real name online, but I’m aware of the risks and yes, it has had consequences. Forcing everyone to do the same is not a viable or sensible course of action.

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