Beliefs Brian Pellot: On Freedom Culture Ethics Institutions Opinion

Despite trolls, hate, and lies, we still need online anonymity

Fremont troll
The Fremont troll in Seattle, Washington.
Fremont troll

The Fremont troll in Seattle, Washington.

This week I spoke about “challenges for religious freedom in the digital age” at the International Association for Religious Freedom’s world congress in Birmingham, U.K.

Audience members and panelists identified anti-religious “hate speech” as one of today’s most pressing concerns. The real problem, most agreed, is online anonymity.

When trolls hide behind pseudonyms they can say whatever they like to offend and to inflict emotional pain, some argued. So what’s to stop anonymous Internet users from inciting violence, spewing libel and spilling state secrets?

Existing laws, terms of service and community guidelines.

If someone uploads illegal material to YouTube, it can be deleted. If one Facebook user bullies or harasses another, the company can terminate the offending account. If someone posts an anti-Semitic rant on the Judaism subreddit, moderators can remove it.

But what if something just rubs you the wrong way? What if it contradicts your firmly held beliefs? What if it angers, appalls or offends you?

This is the price (or benefit) of living in a relatively free society.

If you’re upset, let it be known. If something offends you, explain why. But if you think you’re dealing with trolls who seek to offend for the sole sake of offense, try looking the other way. Trolls feed off your anger. Don’t validate them by airing your outrage.

On the specific issue of religious “hate speech” (in quotation marks because no one defined what they meant by the term), audience members at the conference echoed the age-old call to arms, “Something must be done!” Elect online community leaders(…?)! Adopt and enforce real-name policies! Something something government intervention!

Be careful what you wish for.

Online anonymity can be problematic, sure. But it also presents opportunities for people to express themselves when doing so under real names is out of the question.

Bloggers in conflict zones shed light on the daily struggles of war-torn life, using pseudonyms to shield them from persecution and censorship. LGBT individuals explore their identities anonymously online when fear of family disapproval prevents them from doing so in-person. Religious people question their faith in online forums when airing doubts within their community could cause them to be ostracized or harassed.

Online anonymity is important. So important that Canada’s Supreme Court recently declared it vital to personal privacy in the digital era. But plenty of countries disagree, including the Internet’s greatest enemies and even some alleged “friends.”  Brazil, home to the celebrated “Internet Bill of Rights,” still prohibits anonymous free speech. Such prohibitions usually come down to political control under the guise of national security.

Another question the audience asked: “Who are we to trust when online anonymity can be abused?”

The “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog provided a stirring account of some of the struggles Syrians faced when civil war broke out in 2011. Except that it didn’t. The alleged gay girl in Damascus was actually an American man in Scotland. If you’ve seen the reality show Catfish you already know that people are not always what or who the seem online.

Despite new mediums and platforms, “who to trust” is not a new question. The same logic that once applied when reading about Bat Boy in the tabloids still applies online.

Be skeptical. Be incredulous. Be diligent. Ask questions. Seek information from multiple sources. In essence, pretend you’re a journalist.

Just because you can’t distinguish fact from fiction or occasionally get burned by abusive trolls doesn’t mean we should write off the enormous benefits online anonymity can bring to people who need it most.

About the author

Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is based in Cape Town, South Africa.


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  • So, panelists and attendees at a conference on “religious freedom” were largely in agreement that one of the gravest threats to religious freedom is…people being allowed to speak openly about religion? You couldn’t make this stuff up.

    The examples you cite of people who benefit from online anonymity are, of course, exactly the people whom these advocates of “religious freedom” would love to silence for “hate speech.” People questioning their religion or talking about being gay? Anti-religious hate speech! Blasphemy!

  • One of the gravest threats to religious freedom is not people being allowed to speak openly about religion. It is about people not allowing religious people to speak freely about their religion. When people use hateful words to identify other people, that is hate speech.

    People questioning others religion is not the issue. Questions are good. But calling people names because of their beliefs is hate speech.

  • At its core – religion cannot be proved. It is an unprovable belief. Some would argue that religion is simply – wishful fantasy.

    Unfortunately too many tie their religion and culture into a package – and then claim victim hood when criticized.

    Too bad. Get over it. Your fantasies and culture are fair game for introspection and insult.

    The internet’s ability to allow anonymity to commentators is just the fix needed to combat excesses of all types – especially religious zealots.

    And Mohammad was a pedophile. Get over it. It’s in the Haidith.

  • Religion is all over the world .any one with open eyes can see people worshiping all sorts of gods that’s proof .. it really is that atheism has to be proved.
    there honestly is not any atheists that are dead…you bob smith cant even prove there are atheists that are alive.. yet I can prove people lie