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

Yes, online anonymity can breed and foster deception, hatred, and incivility. But without it we risk silencing voices that desperately need to be heard.

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.