Anonymity is like fire: an indispensable tool with the potential for disaster. And nowhere is that more glaring than among the ones and zeroes of the internet, where everything seems to be one thing or the other with little room in between.
Last week, anonymous — or, more properly, pseudonymous — messages on Facebook leveled at best exaggerated and, at worst, unsubstantiated claims about the Lawrence County Jail. The jail has real issues. For example, it’s currently over its designed capacity by 50 inmates. But the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office has enough on its plate dealing with real problems without also having to deal with rumors and innuendo spread under the cloak of anonymity, especially when any rumors about jail conditions are likely to gain extra traction, given the well-documented inhumane conditions in the state’s prison system.
Yet anonymity is sometimes vital. It serves as protection for whistle-blowers who bring government and corporate corruption out into the public and rightly fear retaliation. In authoritarian countries, anonymity, especially on social media, is even more important. It can mean the difference between freedom and imprisonment or even life and death for the crime of daring to question the regime.
Even in free, democratic countries, anonymity can be useful on social media, allowing people to debate sensitive political and social subjects online without fear angry mobs of strangers will besiege their employer.
In 2013, Justine Sacco, who is white, made the mistake of tweeting a racially tinged joke — actually a clumsy attempt at self-deprecating humor — before boarding an airplane. While she was en route to her destination, he tweet went viral, as did the Twitter hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet.
By the time she landed, Sacco was out of a job — the first high-profile victim of “cancel culture.”
Now Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are awash in people anonymous and not, real and unreal, spreading all sorts of information and misinformation about everything from the 2020 presidential election to vaccines. Some do it for giggles, and others are dead serious.
All of that is why Facebook was once again dragged in front of a congressional committee last week for another tongue lashing. On the left, Democrats insist that Facebook do more to stamp out misinformation. On the right, Republicans think Facebook is already “censoring” too much conservative content, despite links to right-wing websites consistently dominating Facebook’s traffic stats. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall is even taking complaints from anyone who thinks they’ve been “censored” by social media.
Facebook is under additional criticism for leaked documents that purport to show Instagram, a photo-sharing social media site Facebook owns, has a negative impact on the mental health of teenage girls. That leak, too, was anonymous, until the leaker — a former Facebook employee — made her splash on CBS’ “60 Minutes” and at the congressional hearing.
There is good reason to question whether Instagram truly makes teen girls more depressed or simply reflects the peer pressure of teen life, but Facebook has already thrown in the towel. After fighting government regulation for years, Facebook now wants to be regulated. It wants to be thrown into the briar patch.
Surely it is just a coincidence that Facebook’s about-face on regulation comes as Facebook’s growth has slowed and it faces new competitors. Once seen as hip, Facebook is now seen as the domain of old people — that is, baby boomers and Generation Xers.
Any social media regulation now would benefit established companies like Facebook and Twitter, which have the money and resources they need for regulatory compliance, while making entering the business more difficult for potential competitors just starting up.
Yes, social media is a Wild West free-for-all, with all that entails. But the only thing that may be worse is if it weren’t.