I’ve written a couple of times recently (here and here) about how the anonymous nature of the Internet gives people licence to do things they would not do in person and the need for an ethical framework to rein this in. Then, this morning, I found someone I know had liked this photo on Facebook. On one side there is a picture of some Aboriginal children burning the Australian flag earlier this year. On the other there is a heavily-muscled ex-serviceman pointing to a t-shirt with the flag on it and inscribed with the words “Try burning this one motherfuc*er”.
The image itself is deplorable. Kids burning the flag is lousy. A large soldier implicitly threatening them with violence doesn’t do anything for me either. But I was interested enough to follow-up and try to find out more. The picture has been liked about 50,000 times which I find a bit horrifying; but the likes are generic and the sort of thing you can do without really thinking or analysing the content of the photo too closely. It’s the comments that really caught my interest. An outpouring of racism and invective aimed generally at Aboriginals and Asians and specifically at anyone who dared question the absolute rightness of the posters’ world-view. And all with the poster’s name attached.
You see this isn’t an anonymous set of postings in the comments to a blog post. There’s nothing to hide behind in this case. You can click on the poster’s name and see their Facebook pages complete with lists of friends and family, their cute messages to their loved ones, their Birthday pictures – all the things that go to make them real people. And you can see the racist drivel pouring from them. Clearly their willingness to join the mob has little to do with their anonymity. So why?
The first answer that springs to mind is admittedly biased. It’s that most of the posters simply aren’t thinking about what they are doing. They are young and foolish and don’t realise that their name will be permanently associated with these horrible racist comments. Perhaps they’ve grown up with no expectation of a separation of their private and public life and no sense that some things should not be shared.
Second option: These people are proud of their viewpoint and want to stand up for it. Now in one sense that’s a good thing, you should stand up for what you believe. The problem here is that this isn’t a reasoned argument they are putting forward. It is foolish, unreasoning, and filled with hate. That’s not just my bias talking, if you read through the comments the inaccuracies and lack of logic are manifest. That’s sad; and is a strong argument for better education and an ethical framework.
Then there’s the answer that they would act exactly the same in person because their little slice of the world does not have them coming into contact with anyone Aboriginal, Asian or tolerant. What we see online is what they are like in person – we just don’t usually see it. This is the Venn diagram view of the world. There are all these sub-cultures out there, but it is generally only on the Internet that they intersect. I don’t generally spend time with overtly racist people, so I am unduly shocked when my little slice of the world collides with their little slice. In this view anonymity is not an issue. You’re only worried about being anonymous if you are concerned that your friends, families, employers will find out and react negatively to your views. If your slice of the world is inhabited with fellow-travellers then you have no need to hide behind anonymity.
I don’t really know the answer. I fear my idea that internet anonymity was allowing people to express something they would otherwise hide is not entirely right. Anonymity is too facile a response to why people will do this sort of thing. Anonymity may make things easier and have fewer long-term repercussions, but it is not the driver behind people’s willingness to attack others over the Internet. I fear that the reality is more that last approach – people aren’t hiding these sorts of views and approaches at all, I’m just not seeing them. Until our worlds collide.