anonymity & social media

In October, 2018, I signed up to take photos for the Davidsonian article on vaping and juuling. I had no idea what was coming. I was instructed to reach out to two students: Martha and James. Only Martha was willing to meet with me, so I made the short walk over to Hobart Park to snap her photo. When I met with her, she asked if her face could be left out of the photos. She requested, “Can I be anonymous? I don’t want to be the face of vaping at Davidson.” It didn’t seem noteworthy at the time; obviously people’s privacy should be respected. Whether or not a person vapes/juuls is entirely their decision and the whole school does not need to know about it.

However, when I found out that Martha and James were Nazis and had been secretly and anonymously posting hateful threats on Twitter for several months, the encounter I had with Martha at Hobart Park kept coming back up in my mind. Maybe Martha wasn’t going to be the face of vaping or juuling at Davidson, but she had become a very real reminder to the entire campus that anti-Semitism, white nationalism, homophobia, and Naziism in general are unfortunately still prevalent in our society today. Even at a small and seemingly welcoming environment like Davidson, there is still hate. It made me wonder how many other people there are in the world, possibly even people in this community, who use anonymity as a shield against consequences for their hateful and threatening beliefs.

I believe I was anonymous to Martha as well. As a queer woman, but also someone who presents fairly femininely and can “pass” as straight, she most likely had no idea that I am queer. As a white person, to her I might have seemed like an ally. I might have seemed like someone who could be a white nationalist Nazi, like her. In many ways, I am grateful to be privileged with this anonymity because it can protect me in some situations. But it reveals the ways in which other, more visible identities such as race, more expressive queerness, and more do not provide this privilege and leave people vulnerable to hatred without any form of anonymity. For some people, their hated identities are written on their bodies. What would have been different about that day in the woods if Martha had known that I am queer? Maybe nothing would have happened. But I also have to come to terms with the fact that I was alone in a secluded area with someone who wants to hurt me because I am attracted to women, and wants to hurt so many of my classmates.

We live at a time when we can find the answer to any question online in the blink of an eye. If we meet someone new, we can search their name on Instagram or Facebook and find out so much information about their life that, before social media, we had to learn by asking them or asking other people about them. In my opinion, this is a great thing because it frees up our time to learn even more information and to be more educated about what’s going on around us. However, that easy access to information also includes easy access to bad information, and sharing bad information. When someone does something incriminating or something they know would yield consequences, they choose to hide behind the shield of anonymity. Sometimes this is harmless, as it was in the vaping article I covered. But other times, as in a Nazi Twitter account, this anonymity can give people a way to share their harmful and terrible beliefs without consequence.

From my experience, social media is an echo chamber. We follow our friends, and we follow people who interest us or share our beliefs. For example, because I’m really into body positivity, I follow a lot of body positivity bloggers. It works the same way for more serious issues, like social issues or politics. Again, for example, someone who is really passionate about denying climate change isn’t going to follow environmentalists online; they’re going to follow only people who affirm their belief. Social media, especially because it’s possible to be anonymous, provides a platform for people to become radicalized by almost entirely interacting with people who share their beliefs. Having looked through Martha’s Twitter account, her posts weren’t simply isolated to her. They were retweeted from other Nazis, or retweeted by other Nazis. For Martha and James, Twitter provided a place where they could find other Nazis who shared beliefs with them and would validate their horrible and hateful ideas.

Sharing something anonymously can sometimes be a good thing. People are more likely to be honest about their true intentions when they can remain anonymous. When we feel we are being observed or judged, we behave differently, which is the Hawthorne Effect. That is why the “student feedback instruments” here at Davidson, where we give feedback on our professors and classes, must be done anonymously. Otherwise, a student might be afraid to say something critical or negative about a course for fear of the professor’s reaction. Anonymity inspires honesty because there is no fear of repercussion, especially when the truth might be hurtful. While this can be good, it can also be terrible, as we can see from many instances on social media especially including Martha’s and James’s Twitter accounts. If there were no way to anonymously post online, far fewer Nazis would feel comfortable posting online. At least in Martha’s case, she expressed that she knew the consequences that would rightly follow if she posted those things online. Yet, she continued to do it because she felt comfortable and validated by the other extremist Nazis she interacted with on her Twitter account.

How can we deal with this and try to prevent people from using anonymity to spread hate? I’m not sure we can. Because of free speech, the power and scope of the internet, and the benefits of anonymity, there may be no way to stop people from posting bad things online. Luckily, in Martha’s and James’s cases, they ended up facing some form of consequences for their threatening hatefulness. However, in many other cases, it’s possible to post hateful things online anonymously for years without ever being discovered. I think the best thing that we can do is continue to have conversations like the ones we have in Humes that stand up against hate and attempt to make a positive change in the world.