In the latest episode of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone tackle difficult questions of privacy, free speech, and so-called “trolling” on the internet.
For a brief recap, Kyle’s dad, Gerald, has been harassing women on the internet behind a veil of anonymity known as “SkankHunt42.” His victims are random, and he pursues them with a sadistic zeal that would be humorous if it didn’t feel so accurate. Gerald’s biggest “prize” comes at the suicide of a fictitious Danish athlete who had recently recovered from a bout of breast cancer. Up until this point, the victims of this trolling have simply (or, not so simply, as the show suggests) quit social media altogether. These were SkankHunt42’s victims. But Gerald is unable to compartmentalize the success of this hunt to the part of him friendly to SkankHunt42. There is blood on Gerald’s hands, and he knows it. Well, it now appears as though Gerald is in deeper trouble. The Danes have built a system that allows one to trace any anonymous comment on the internet back to the real name and address of the person who posted under the pseudonym.
For all of the shows antics and crude humor, this recent storyline raises serious questions about ancient rights in the new era. Surely, anonymity is nothing new to the public discourse. The prominent examples include the authors of The Federalist Papers each writing under the pseudonym “Publius,” a reference to the early roman republican. But there are other examples, such as Mark Twain, or even François-Marie Arouet, who is said to have used over 170 pseudonyms during the course of his life (you know him by one of them, Voltaire).
Anonymity has, at times, served great importance in advancing the discourse of the most pressing matters of the day. Surely, society would place the ideas and causes for which the founders retained anonymity above those of the SkankHunt42’s of today. But does a supposed “right to anonymity” only exist for riverboat captains or those risking life and limb by publishing their works? Or should everyone be entitled not to have their name permanently attached to the words they use online?
Today, students are taught using “clickers,” devices that allow teachers to ask questions of the class and record their responses anonymously. No student faces the potentially agonizing humiliation of raising their hand to answer a seemingly easy question, only to be told their wrong in front the entire class. We might say that this is a positive aspect of anonymity – students can participate, learn, and grow in ways they might not have been able to in the past. But even here one can begin to see the issues associated with anonymity, namely, the lack of concern for the truth.
“What does it matter if what I say is wrong?” someone with a clicker might say. “No one knows it was me; I can respond any way I choose.”
Herein lies one of the initial problems with trolling. The troll doesn’t care if he or she is right on the facts, often they don’t care about the facts, they just want to respond in the way they choose. In the fictional world of South Park, such behavior ends in a suicide. Unfortunately, internet bullying has led to more than a few actual suicides in years’ past.
In 20-years’ time, social media might not be so much an “accessory” like it is today. Indeed, it may very well be a necessity.
Perhaps the most infamous case in recent memory is that of Amanda Todd. Amanda was a 15-year-old Canadian girl who took her own life after lewd photos of her surfaced on the internet. In 2010, an anonymous man on the internet persuaded her to remove her top in an online video chat, at which time he took several screen shots and proceeded to blackmail Amanda for more. Eventually, the man posted these photos on Facebook. Her friends and classmates saw the photos and, rather than offer her support; they mocked her. Despite changing schools twice, the bullying continued. Two years later, Amanda decided to end it all. She drank bleach, and nearly died before being taken to the hospital and having her stomach pumped. The ridicule did not end there.
Back from the hospital, Amanda received messages from Facebook users musing on how unfortunate it was that she didn’t actually kill herself. She moved schools again, but the man who took the pictures continued to follow her. Less than 7-months after her first attempt, Amanda tried again. This time, she succeeded. Amanda’s life ended the way it did for no other reason than a man could get away with distributing child pornography anonymously for so long, and the sadism of classmates and anonymous strangers on the internet. But, such as it is, these suicides are still relatively rare.
Suppose, though; there would’ve been a way to catch Amanda’s stalker at the outset? Suppose that one day someone developed a system that allowed anyone in the world to discover the real name and location of any anonymous poster, instantly. What about internet culture would change if people could no longer remain anonymous? Sometimes – many times – people say things before thinking. They speak from a place of ignorance, either believing they know it all, or knowing that they do not; and, as we know, the internet can be very unforgiving of ignorance. It is not hard to imagine a person abusing a system designed to root out harassers in order to harass someone themselves.
On the one hand, people would not be so quick to fire off a post or a comment. This means fewer people will be communicating, sharing information, and exchanging in the marketplace of ideas. People need room to breathe, they need room to be wrong (or, right, for that matter) without the unintended secondary effects of that speech affecting the real, tangible aspects of a person’s regular life. But on the other hand, we have seen the detrimental effects of trolls. And, in some ways, we’ve already know how named-trolls would be treated. Case-in-point, Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos’ permanent ban from Twitter.
South Park makes somewhat of a joke out of the people who cannot handle online abuse, painting their decision to leave social media as its own suicide. The joke, of course, being a parody of the ridiculously over-dramatized nature of the means by which people choose to make others aware of their exit. However, I think this attempt at humor overlooks society’s increasing reliance on the internet and social media. In 20-years’ time, social media might not be so much an “accessory” like it is today. Indeed, it may very well be a necessity.