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Incivility on the Internet

The Pros and Cons of Anonymity

by Myra Saturen,

At a time when incivility, free speech and anonymous electronic communication are evoking passion around the world, honors speech communications students discussed the history and tools of anonymity and its effect on society at a symposium on December 7.  

The NCC Honors Program is designed to meet the needs of its most academically prepared students. It does so by providing an enriched educational environment in which students are challenged to reach their full intellectual potential and to better prepare themselves for the academic demands of a four-year college or university.  Academically prepared students in all majors are invited to apply for the program. 

The discussion was kickstarted by Plato's myth about the Ring of Gyges, which allowed the wearer to become invisible, enabling him or her to commit injustice and acts of incivility anonymously.  Two thousand years later, the internet has brought these ancient concerns to the fore once again. New computer applications such as Yik Yak are furthering the ability of people to post messages without revealing their identity.     

Some of the observations participants made about anonymity and incivility included:  

  • The Internet give bullies a mask, allowing them to harass or threaten people without taking responsibility or facing consequences.
  • Cyberbullies are shielded from seeing the harm they are causing.  Reactions to cyberbullying have included loss of self-esteem, depression and suicide. 
  • Anonymity facilitates cybercrime.     
  • False information and dishonest self-portraits degrade authenticity and transparency.
  • Privacy has been eliminated in the Internet Age.
  • Filters erected in face-to-face interaction vanish on the Web, advancing incivility.
  • Anonymous incivility brings instability to our national politics and into homes.
  • Posts and images made years ago can go viral, embarrassing or shaming their objects.  One awkward photo taken of a woman at age eleven was passed along electronically twenty years later, reaching five million people. 
  • Real issues in the world are turned into jokes, minimizing their importance.
  • Trolling, a practice in which individuals and groups are targeted to elicit anger, promote desensitization for the participants and cause pain to the recipients.
  • Early and excessive use of the Internet impairs children's development, interfering with social skills, causing hearing loss and instilling obsessive behavior. According to some studies, one in eleven children shows technical addiction.  Some children under the age of two have hand-held devices.
  • Ill-considered posts can come back to haunt their originators.

Symposium participants also pointed out the positive impact of electronic communication:

  • Web-based communication can unite people to share information and summon help at difficult times.  For instance, during the recent attack on Paris, Parisians opened their homes via Twitter to people afraid to return to their own homes or to their hotels.  In Egypt, a video of a policeman fatally beating a man, posted anonymously, spread awareness and outrage.  Facebook became a hub of information about ensuing protests.  One symposium participant's friend received donations after a car accident through Go Fund Me.
  • The Internet is easy to use for everyone.
  • Protesters who risk physical danger demonstrating in person can communicate in safety via the Web.   

Caution on the Internet and social media emerged from the symposium as the watchword "The Internet and social media are amazing, but must be used wisely," said one student.  "Words mean more than what one thinks they do.  Think before you post."

Students who participated in the symposium included: Ryan Armbruster, Patrick Jason Krupcha, Julia Rasmussen, Hunter Runge, Miljorie Averion, Nicholas Barker, Armando Gonzalez, Trevor Watlington, Adriana Mantz, Hannah McMullen, Elizabeth Ruppert, Michael Rex, Jahnny Getz, Amanda Santelli, Rebecca Winner, Hannah Young, Derreck Ortiz, Nikki Hrichak, and Jon Vandershaw.  

For more information on the NCC honors program, visit www.northampton.edu.     Add your own thoughts on anonymity on the internet below.