When anonymous, free speech gets murky

4chan, the petulant child of the internet, acted up again in the past few weeks. Unlike an errant toddler, however, 4chan’s collective tantrums are both anonymous and have real life consequences. What used to sound like innocuous video game jargon or a dietary supplement has now transformed into a phrase that strikes fear in the hearts of FBI agents and campus security officials everywhere. I am talking about the “Beta-uprising.” Swarthmore students may be familiar with its fearful powers.

This “Beta-uprising” is a part of an internet phenomenon in which individuals who perceive themselves as socially inept or shortchanged express anger online, often anonymously. Recently, as before, this anger has manifested itself in the real world, with tragic consequences. Just before fall break, our school, along with other Philadelphia tertiary institutions, was put on alert due to a threat made on 4chan. Some students, and doubtlessly much of the general public, were perplexed at the slowness of response by government agencies such as the FBI in apprehending the offending party.

The tech savvy among us understand why it is so difficult. While things like bullets and telephone lines are easy to trace, the proliferation of internet users has also seen the development of technologies such as Tor that hide and obscure our usage of the web. While some legitimate uses of these technologies exist (internet banking for example), typically they are used in the shadier and more illegal corners of the internet. As a testament to their effectiveness, in order to catch the boss of the online drug trading ring SilkRoad, the feds had to resort to distracting him in a library to steal his laptop. Sounds like something out of an 80’s movie. If the typical users of 4chan are how they portray themselves to be, I am pretty sure they are adept at such technology too.

Why is this untraceability important? Because it complicates the entire idea of speech. It blurs the lines of public speech and private speech. As the Supreme Court’s ruling in Snyder v. Phelps has shown us, while forced unwelcome speech in a private setting can be legally removed or controlled, public speech is protected and mostly unrestricted. To a free speech advocate such as myself, this legal distinction is reasonable. When we engage in public speech we open ourselves up to scrutiny and potential social disparagement. This factor of risk acts as both a gatekeeper and mediator. This is not to say that all public speech ends up being reasonable or educated, but just that social scrutiny exerts a strong enough influence that legal control is mostly unnecessary. The same could not be said of speech in a private setting. With the recent emergence of truly anonymous speech, the element of social risk is lost. What remains is a grotesque mutation — all the reach of public speech but none of the responsibility.

When I first conceived of this column, I thought I would be in full ideological support of anonymous speech. Before, if the law require it, courts could request service providers to unmask the identities of offending individuals. Now that the law and its instruments are outdated, I tried to think of ways that anonymous speech would be beneficial. For instance, anonymity has encouraged individuals to seek help and avoid otherwise dangerous personal situations such as depression. However, even in that context, the anonymity wasn’t truly comprehensive. In situations similar to the “Beta-uprising” and the surrounding violence and security fiascos, there is the argument (of all places, I saw one on Facebook) that it is better for us to have some prior warning so that we can be prepared. Sounds pretty legitimate, but it is not.

The problem with that argument is that we are not actually going to be more prepared. The only way we could be prepared is if preparedness would equated to a persistent environment of fear. With the element of untraceability, the assessment of danger becomes speculative and inaccurate. In fact, a large portion of the threats that surface online are revealed as pranks. While not as visceral as classic fear-spreading tactics such as cross burnings, the heightened randomness of these anonymous online threats has the potential to be even more frightening. Furthermore, unlike those tactics, we have no way of locating the originator of these messages. Of course, the potential for fear alone should never be a reason to clamp down on any form of speech. But when such a fear is utilized as a potent and targeted weapon for the express purpose of destabilizing a community, it should invite further discussion, and maybe a higher level of control. When a sizable number of students on our campus skipped class or locked themselves in their rooms, I think it is reasonable to say that something should be done. A good example of what can be done is Yik-Yak, which recently heightened moderation in response to potentially disturbing comments. While Yik-Yak contains more than enough unsavory content, the application at least exposes anonymous speech to the light of social judgement, returning it back to the established conventions of public speech.

Do not be mistaken. My comments on the potential dangers of anonymous speech do not aim to absolve other factors from their responsibilities. More causal issues such as gun-control, social integration and mental health support are all pertinent to the rise of “Beta” violence, but I am sure other people have better insights on those issues than I do. But as we have all witnessed recently, campus fear is real, and when this fear serves no useful purpose it ought to challenged.

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