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For the past few months, I have been receiving at least one disturbing message of unknown origin on WhatsApp daily. Many of these forwarded messages are crafted from partial truths. As their content makes clear, the ulterior aim of these ‘forwards’ is to sharpen differences between the followers of two religions and re-ignite one of the oldest conflicts in human history. Digital platforms are being used for many other ills, too, such as spreading fake news and trolling one’s opponents. In recent times, digital media has been used to incite many a violent act in the physical world too. Digital media giants have been experimenting with multiple ways to filter out or label negative or misleading posts. But they have not had much success. Many observers are worried that these trends could affect digital media’s image and harm its future.

Why do so many people behave in such an uncivilized manner on social media platforms? The answer might be found in many studies, including a few famous ones conducted by Philip Zimbardo, an American psychologist. Participants in studies who wore hoods over their faces, which offered them a sense of anonymity, were more likely to indulge in undesirable behaviours than those whose identities were known. Anonymity does breed anti-social behaviour. Fake IDs, pseudonyms and unverified user-accounts abound online, giving people ample opportunity to mask their identities as they post messages.

There is now substantial evidence that the use of inauthentic accounts are a major tool used by those wishing to put out and amplify misinformation. In an article in the journal CyberPsychology and Behaviour, professor John Suler describes anonymity as one of the principal factors creating disinhibition on social media. According to Suler, when people have an opportunity to separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosure and ‘acting out’ roles. In a process of dissociation, the online self becomes a compartmentalized self. In fact, people might even convince themselves that their online behaviours “aren’t me at all".

Two years ago, in Behaviour by Brain, I had supported maintaining anonymity on the internet. My rationale for that stance was that anonymity would allow individuals to express their private beliefs without the fear of public scrutiny. In the last few years, I did see many individuals under pseudo identities freely expressing their views. But I also realized that such free expression often turns vicious in the face of opposing points of view. In the offline world, rude messages might have been forgotten. But in the digital world, it is never really forgotten. So at the end of a round of free expression of views, those involved in such debates end up hardening their original stance. In any conflict where the identities of those involved are known, there will always be social pressure on them to work towards reconciliation. But anonymity absolves the conflicting parties of the need for reconciliation. So the anonymity afforded by social media, while facilitating a freer expression of views, tends to consolidate and aggravate existing conflicts.

There is this notion that digital media activity occurs in a personal space, and so it should be free of external interference. Is that really so? We can plot all our activities on an ‘action map’ along two coordinates. One coordinate plots actions taken as an individual along a scale towards actions taken as part of a group. The other plots the space in which actions are taken, ranging from one’s personal space to a completely public place. On the face of it, many a digital activity might look like something done by an individual in one’s private space. But when that individual sends messages to another person, they start entering the public domain. Many of the digital content one generates might get forwarded to many more people. If so, now a group of people are involved in that activity. This then becomes a form of group activity occurring in a public place, much like a street demonstration.

Any activity in a public place is governed by social and not individual norms. So the posting of an online message that can potentially reach out to many people cannot be considered an individual act, simply left to be governed by individual norms.

In the initial days of mobile phones, users were largely anonymous. But soon, the authorities realized that this anonymity was being misused, especially by extreme elements. So today mobile phone users have to furnish proper identity documents before getting a new telecom connection. This, no doubt, has greatly reduced its misuse. But this has not really affected ordinary citizens who need to be in intimate touch with their dear ones over telecom networks. Similarly, social media owners will have to work towards truly robust user-identification policies. People could be allowed to use pseudonyms so long as their real identity has been verified and they can be held accountable for any bad behaviour. It is also true that even individuals with unmasked identities have used digital media platforms for ulterior purposes. But the law can still catch up with their misbehaviour, even if it’s post facto.

Given human nature, unhindered online anonymity is likely to be increasingly misused. Just as street lights helped dispel the darkness in public places to make them safer, social media platforms should make the digital world a better place by dispelling the darkness of anonymity.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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