Thursday, September 13, 2012

Anonymity’s legitimacy under threat from cowards

The “Twitter trolling” debate in Australia is becoming a tragedy of the micro-commons.

If you find Dick Smith and Joe Hockey in foreplay-like agreement, you know you’re in trouble – but that’s what happened on ABC 702 Sydney’s Drive program Monday afternoon when the subject of “trolling” came up.

Both of them are against anonymity, and that’s a worry, because you’ve got a very broad spectrum of political thinking following the “no anonymity” idea.

I’m possibly in a minority, but I like mad old Dick the ratbag. He’s one of the few genuine high-profile ratbags Australia has left (Clive Palmer is starting to show promise). I don’t agree with his politics, I buy his peanut butter because my sons like it, and I love his possum-stirring, even when I think he’s wrong.

Hockey? If I was drawing lots on a desert island to see who went in the pot, I wouldn’t vote for him.

And they’re in agreement on anonymity?

We’re in trouble.

See, I don’t post anonymously, and I hate the “Anonymous Coward” (TM to Slashdot) that abuses anonymously, but anonymity matters – sometimes for good reasons.

Good Reason 1: Political oppression

It comes in many flavours. It may be because you live in Egypt, but it might also be that in America, your workplace sees fit to demand a particular vote. In Australia, you might just want to express a right/left view when you know you’re subject to a left/right supervisor/boss/arsehole/bitch who can’t sack you, but can make you miserable.

Good Reason 2: Whistleblowing

There’s absolutely no challenge here. A whistleblower – someone exposing real political or business corruption – deserves anonymity. A good journalist suffers gaol rather than reveal a source; that, for me, suffices as a benchmark.

Good Reason 3: Your employer

Since Senator Conroy, Joe Hockey, and for good measure, Barry O’Farrell, haven’t cottoned on: some employers take extreme exception to things their employees or potential employees might have said online.

Hell, employers do Facebook searches – which probably explains why my sporadic attempts to become a staffer fail (I don’t have a Facebook page, immediately suspicious). So I can perfectly understand that anyone might think there’s things they don’t want the boss to know – not just political (Good Reason 1), but social, religious, marital, sexual – anything, really.

Bad Reason: You’re a sockpuppet

I include this category in the next one.

Bad Reason: You’re a dickhead

The problem is this: the dickheads are commanding the public debate. All the good reasons for anonymity are being dragged down by dickheads hiding behind fake IDs either because they’re desperately insecure hyper-sensitive hate-mongers – in short, losers – who want to spray at Aborigines, Jews, celebrities, anyone that offers an easy target and a big audience. If you slag off Charlotte Dawson, Robbie Farah – or, better, Stephen Fry – your Tweet lands in front of a great many eyes.

Or you’re hiding your identity so you can slag off people or causes in the pay of someone else – climate sceptics, “big oil”, a political party, whatever – and you’re just another dickhead.

The problem is, one bad reason has suddenly become the Trojan that undermines all the good reasons – partly because some of the sponsors of bad reasons resent the good ones. Employers want absolute control over all aspects of their employees’ lives – all of those “benefits” Google provides equate to keeping the sheep penned. Everybody hates whistleblowers, even after they’re proved right. Political parties detest their opponents so desperately they seek to deny the legitimacy not just of ideas, but of debate over ideas.

And in all of this, the smallest minds, the narrowest viewpoints, the littlest vocabularies – these have taken command of the public debate.

Twitter’s “tragedy of the commons” is that its commons is polluted by people who defecate without fertilizing: they only pollute. They give aid and comfort to the worst impulses of control – as I’ve said elsewhere, either paraphrasing or quoting mad Nietzsche, “For your own good” expresses the will to power – without saying anything worth saying or defending.

Detesting the citadels of the powerful, the trolls, bullies and abuses burn the houses of the weak. How depressing is that?

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