Indirect Message Transcript

Episode 14: Anonymity vs. Cancel Culture 

This transcription relies on AI technology and contains errors.

Laci Green: (00:18)
What's up, you guys? You know, one of my favorite things about the internet is that it's easy to be anonymous. You can just hop online right now -if you're not already online- and say pretty much whatever you want in almost total anonymity. Nobody will know it was you. Probably won't be any consequences, unless you did something stupid illegal. This is how the controversial group Anonymous got started back in the day. They've attempted to take on powerful entities like Scientology, uh, the KKK ISIS, varying degrees of success. But the idea of allowing people to operate behind a curtain is a little unnerving. Some people have argued that anonymity makes it easier for bad actors to, you know, spread hate online or to organize crimes. In my sex ed days, I often heard people argue that a lot of the trolling and bad behavior online would probably go away if everyone was just forced to use their real name. But would it really?

Laci Green: (01:13)
On today's Indirect Message: the right to remain anonymous, the good, the bad, and the ugly.




Last week, Scott Alexander became a target of the New York Times. It started out on a high note. The paper is writing an article about his blog, Slate Star Codex. I'd describe his blog as a sort of skeptical/rationalist approach to philosophy, politics, science. Worth noting: Scott's a psychiatrist. Also worth noting: Scott isn't his real name. So after being interviewed, the New York Times says to him, Hey, look, we know your real name and we're going to include it in the article. Faced with being doxed by the biggest paper in the country, he decided to delete his whole blog. Now you'll only find one post explaining why it's gone.

Scott Alexander: (02:03)
I have a lot of reasons for staying pseudonymous. First I'm a psychiatrist and psychiatrists are kind of obsessive about preventing their patients from knowing anything about who they are outside of work. 


This isn't Scott's real voice. He didn't want to record audio so we had a little chat over email.


Scott Alexander:

I think it's plausible that if I became a national news figure under my real name, my patients -who run the gamut from far left to far right- wouldn't be able to engage with me in a normal therapeutic way. I also worry that my clinic would decide I am more of a liability than an asset and let me go, which would leave hundreds of patients in a dangerous situation as we try to transition their care. The second reason is more prosaic. Some people want to kill me or ruin my life. And I'd prefer not to make it too easy. I live with 10 housemates, including a three year old and an infant. And I would prefer that this not happened to me or them.



Wait, did he say he lives with 10 people?

Scott Alexander:

While everyone was moaning about social atomization, some friends of mine invited all their friends to get a giant house together. Sort of like a co op though we're libertarians and not into the whole hippie vibe. It's been two years now. And so far, it's one of the best decisions I ever made.

Laci Green: (03:05)
So one mystery solved, but why would the New York times want to dox him, especially given his concerns? The paper insists that real names are policy likely as a matter of public interest.

Scott Alexander: (03:16)
I've never been shy about any of the things that people might want to know about me: my age, my profession, where I live. All that knowing my real name would add would be how to find my house and how to get me fired. I don't see why either of those two things are in the public interest. On the other hand, I think it's hugely in the public interest for people to be able to write blogs without worrying about their jobs or their safety.

Laci Green: (03:37)
His point made me think about the debate over cancel culture. Should people lose their jobs or be socially ostracized for being offensive?

Scott Alexander: (03:44)
This is a tough one. There are certainly some opinions of horror enough that it's hard for me to tolerate them, but I also worry that this would be a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. Nobody agrees what a racist or sexist opinion is. Is Christianity sexist? It certainly has some pretty strong opinions about gender roles. Is supporting Trump racist? I would rather say that if someone has bad opinions, you argue with them or block them. And if someone starts advocating violence or directly bullying others, then you get out the big guns.

Laci Green: (04:11)
Of course, what constitutes "advocating violence" or "directly bullying others" is also up for debate as well. Recently, Clara Janover, who is a Harvard grad and has been an outspoken activist for black lives matter, came under serious internet fire for a tick tock video she made. In the video, she makes a questionable analogy in which she eludes to graphically stabbing someone. "The next person who has the sheer nerve, the sheer entitled caucasity to say 'all lives matter'....I'm a stab you. I'm a, I'm a stab you. And while you're struggling and bleeding out, I'ma show you my paper cut and say, my cut matters too!" Is it over the line? Uh, yeah, for sure. Is she advocating violence? Well, she claims it's just an analogy. Should she lose her job for it? This is the question that we need to reckon with seriously, because it's happening to more and more people every day. Scott argues that in this kind of atmosphere, it's only people who are rich or financially stable, who can talk about their politics while also being identifiable.

Scott Alexander: (05:16)
One of the saving graces of my situation is that I'm financially secure. If I lose my current job, I'll figure something out. But some of the letters I've gotten have been from grad students who are already facing a tremendous uphill battle to succeed. These are some of the smartest and best educated people around. And a lot of them are terrified to speak out publicly because some college hiring committee is going to think they're a liability. Same with any job whose HR will Google their name before hiring them. I hate to say it, but I think the only people who aren't vulnerable here are journalists. They're hired to publicly write opinions. And so their jobs don't care what they say. This is one reason why I feel like a lot of journalists don't understand this and aren't taking it as seriously as they should. It's also why it's so important to preserve non journalists, right to speak out.

Laci Green: (05:57)
I get what he's saying here about the journalists, but my impression is almost the opposite. That journalists are more vulnerable to pressure given the very public nature of their jobs. It's easier for large swaths of people to call for their heads if they publish a controversial opinion or an article that explores a taboo topic.

Scott Alexander: (06:14)
That makes sense. And you probably know more than I do about this, but I think ordinary people have to worry about holding even pretty common views. The problem isn't just that your dream job doesn't hire you because you said something outrageous. It's that your dream job refuses to hire you because they see that you have a politics blog at all, and they assume that's a risk. You could be saying the most boring thing possible -elect Biden in 2020!- and they still might decide someone without a blog seems like a safer choice.

Laci Green: (06:40)
So is the solution here just anonymity for everyone, or is there a way to make the internet more welcoming of difficult discussions? Scott had an unconventional idea here that I hadn't thought of before.

Scott Alexander: (06:52)
You and I have both talked about the cultural side of this before: building tolerance, understanding, and respect for diversity. But the other half is the economic side. The more of a social safety net we have, the less afraid we'll have to be. Something like universal basic income would be a godsend here. Don't get me wrong. I would rather live in a culture where you could express your opinion, honestly, without needing a backup plan in case it ruins your life. But right now we suck at this and having a backup plan sounds really good.



Laci Green: (07:23)
Scott's story underscores a few reasons why anonymity is really important. For one, most of us occupy multiple social identities. You probably don't behave the same with your friends as with your romantic partner, as with your parents. At least I hope not. In his case, he's a psychiatrist and a blogger and a member of a not actually hippie commune. Anonymity allows him to fill all of those roles without causing harm. The other reason that anonymity is important, which is actually a bigger reason in my opinion, is that we need to be able to express our ideas freely in order to challenge authority and dogma. Anonymity enables the pursuit of truth. It's why we protect whistleblowers and why researchers will collect sensitive data anonymously. And around the world, anonymity is critical to fighting government corruption without being killed or jailed...which is precisely why oppressive regimes are trying to take anonymity away.

Laci Green: (08:26)
China is a particularly egregious example. The Chinese government operates one of the largest internet censorship regimes in the world since 2017, anonymity isn't allowed there. Everyone has to have their real identity verified before they can use social media. Now, the government claims that this is to fight fake news (sound familiar?), but it's part of a broader pattern of China controlling the flow of information and punishing dissidents who speak out against the communist party. At least 2 million people are employed by the Chinese government to scour the internet, looking for information that needs adjusted or removed. This is not the thing of dystopian sci-fi movies, right? This is real life. And American tech giants have often been complicit in all of this. Just a couple of weeks ago, Zoom terminated the accounts of three Chinese activists who were using the platform to organize. Why? Because the government asked them to. I mean, come on, Zoom, grow some balls.

Laci Green: (09:20)
Now here in the US, our right to anonymity has been protected by a few Supreme court cases, but that does not mean that we're home free. For instance, Facebook itself has a policy requiring real names. Now imagine a world where most people get their news from Facebook and it's one of the main ways that people can discuss what's happening in the country. Imagine that that country's government is hostile to people who criticize it. This hypothetical is not a huge stretch (just a little stretch)! But what about online harassment? Doxxers and swatters and trolls? Should they really be able to hide behind a screen name? 


In the popular imagination, an internet troll hides behind an anonymous screen name while they wreak havoc on the internet from a dingy basement. So this is why people say, Hey, you know, if we take away the anonymity, then the behavior is going to go away. But there is an elephant sized assumption in that argument, which is that it's the anonymity that causes bad behavior.

Laci Green: (10:22)
If that were true, we should see less toxicity in online environments where people's real names are attached, but we don't. So what's going on here? Researchers think something that may be playing a big role in bad behavior online is that when we're anonymous, we're more likely to conform. Which means if I'm on a troll-y internet forum where everyone's being a dick, well, I'm more likely to be a dick too. But if I'm in a community that expects respectful conversation, well, I'm more likely to be respectful too. This effect is known as deindividuation. It's a psychological phenomenon where the norms of a group we're in overrides our individual sensibilities. And the effect gets worse when there's a clearly defined outgroup. So, you know, one group spans versus another group's fans, or liberals versus conservatives, scientists versus flat earthers. I don't know. You get the idea! Unsurprisingly, it plays a role in mob mentalities and group think. Which means we have to think about the environment that all of this stuff is happening in...which is a lot more complicated.

Laci Green: (11:28)
So this is why some researchers are now saying, we need to think about trolling and bad internet stuff, not as an anonymity problem, but as a self control problem. You know, what is it about social media that makes it harder for us to have self control? And we don't really know, but we have a few hints. We tend to lose self control when we encounter opinions that we consider a moral or unacceptable. We tend to lose control when we've been exerting a lot of self control already -- basically we get tired. There are also some demographic groups that have lower levels of self control, like young people, some mental health problems and some physical health problems like chronic pain. So we can take a couple of things away from this, alternatives to getting rid of anonymity. One is to encourage social media platforms to build in tools that help us to get a grip when we are having self control issues. The other thing that we can do is --because there is a conformity element at play here-- is we can model the type of behavior that we want to see in our online communities and try to cultivate that in our online communities, as a group. All right, guys, that's all I got for you today. Thanks for joining me. Thanks to Scott for the email exchange. And thanks to Mordechai for voicing Scott. Take care of yourselves out there and I'll see you next time.