Artificial Intelligence, Internet “Gangs”, and the Cowardice of Anonymity

Internet anonymity, as practiced on much of our twisted social media, is the new form of the terrorizing robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan.  Anonymity and mob psychology are core causes of the malicious venom posted continually on what should have been an incredible tool for intelligent exchange and discussion.  Philip Hensher explains: “The possibility, and the dangers, of anonymity started to become apparent long before we all went online, and both have only continued to grow.” [Philip Hensher, “The bigger a community gets, the easier and more virulent anonymity becomes”, Guardian, 8/23/13; http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/23/bigger- community-easier-virulent-anonymity.]

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, considered the “Father of the Internet” in recognition of his algorithmic designs, has voiced his dismay about how his invention has evolved.  He offers: “For the first 15 years, most people just expected the web to do great things. They thought ‘there’ll be good and bad, that is humanity, but if you connect humanity with technology, great things will happen….  “What could go wrong? … We have fake news, we have problems with privacy, we have problems with abuse of personal data, we have people being profiled in a way that they can be manipulated by clever ads.”  [https://www.yahoo.com/news/sir-tim-berners-lee-launches-214716734.html, “Sir Tim Berners-Lee launches ‘Magna Carta for the web’ to save internet from abuse”, Laurence Dodds, The Telegraph, 11/5/18.]

As Berners-Lee and others intimately linked with the Internet’s development lament, over the past two decades the anonymity of the Internet has created a completely different sort of “connective tissue” than its creators anticipated. With a few exceptions, the granting of anonymity to Internet posters has been a serious mistake.  As a general rule, anonymity should not be allowed except in the most dire circumstances.  At least in countries such as the US and those of Western Europe and the United Kingdom, this includes whether it is in the context of Internet communications or Antifa face masks.

Cowards Wear Masks

Batman, Spiderman and the Lone Ranger are romanticized fictional heroes.  Internet trolls and mobs, on the other hand, are real and dangers to the essence of democracies.  At least in terms of political speech and protest in Western democracies as opposed to totalitarian states whose power depends on suppression of dissent, if you have the courage of your convictions you should not be allowed to hide behind a mask whether physical or electronic. Cowards who would never dare to utter anything in a face-to-face encounter have been “enabled” by the concealment offered by the electronic medium.  This has generated massive amounts of inanity, stupidity, pursuit of personal and interest group agendas, dishonesty, and the basest viciousness.  Anonymity grants a “free pass” and the avoidance of accountability of the kind that contradicts the spirit of the democratic ideal.

Whatever one feels about Donald Trump’s incessant string of tweets and the quirks and the frequent crudeness of his personal behavior and name calling, the fact is that the reader knows his identity and can evaluate the worth of his comments through that prism.  Whatever one might think for or against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez she is not a coward and is willing to present her positions to a host of millions, some of whom think she is fantastic while others see her as a moronic loudmouth.  Concealed identity prevents such evaluations.  It also removes a sense of discipline and accountability from the equation because, as Philip Hensher explains above, the “internal censor” of common sense and decency that generally controls our face-to-face communications has been eliminated. 

Like Aristotle in his explanation of the essential conditions of Athenian democracy, we [David and Daniel] believe that as a general rule it is legitimate and even vital that we know the quality and motives of those presenting information.  Otherwise, how do we determine the validity and worth of a person’s interpretations, opinions, formulas for reform and solutions if we cannot evaluate the biases and motives of those offering such analyses?  

Evaluating the qualifications and motivations of individuals speaking for themselves or representing groups is impossible when those offering the information hide their identity.  This includes those who hide behind what are called “whistleblower” regulations.  If someone working within a system has valid criticisms to offer, then the situation should be handled by strong rules and sanctions against any possible retaliation, not by the grant of anonymity.  Making it too easy to hide one’s identity gives rise to careless, overstated and biased attacks on others because there are no consequences.  

There should, in fact, be at least the potential for accountability for “cheap shots”, strategically-based partisan attacks such as being done by the “Anonymous” source who claims to be working in the White House who for all we know may be a hoax perpetrated by a major news source.  There should also be concern about biased sources whose prejudices almost inevitably lead to poorly thought out characterizations and interpretations of others’ actions.  A general principle suggested here is that we should all be willing to accept the potential consequences of our actions and errors and accept that it is wise or at least prudent for us to think carefully about the truth of what we are saying and the intention and integrity of those we are accusing.  Otherwise, anyone claiming some sort of “insider” knowledge about others’ actions can feel free to say whatever they want without consequences.

Anonymity Enables Criminality, Hatred and Perversion

There are other significant consequences of Internet anonymity.  Until now, people who harbored the worst, sickest or most contemptible thoughts, or who drew conclusions based on extreme biases and ignorance, confided only to their most trusted associates.  This was because they knew their values, beliefs and preferences were incompatible with those of the overall community. Until empowered by the Internet and its grant of anonymity, along with the ability to expand their reach through access to cyberspace and the phenomenon of the Internet’s “Dark Net”, most people were hesitant about communicating certain views.  They couldn’t be certain the people they were speaking to face-to-face shared their prejudices and didn’t want to end up labeled as vile, bigoted, or just flat out stupid.  

The problem is that the Internet has become a tool not only for those seeking reliable information and intelligent discourse, but for the perverse in society.  The “sickos”, zealots, fanatics, and ignorant have developed links to others who share their prejudices and visions—whether child pornography, race or religious bias, envy and class resentment, or some other volatile orientation.  For many others, the Internet has become their “weapon” of choice to the point of creating almost instantaneous Internet “lynch mobs” if anyone offends them.  A tragic result is that the Internet has dramatically intensified our social divisions by facilitating the links between people who would never otherwise be able to “find” each other.  This allows them to share their worst hates, perversions and fears.  Those who harbor inner darkness, dangerous perversions, hatred and vindictiveness discover they aren’t alone.

It isn’t only the perverts, “wackos”, pedophiles, drug gangs, scam artists and hate-mongers.  The Internet  is not only a communications and research tool but a weapon.  It has allowed us to create versions of our own “gang” in ways that enhance our ability to voice our agendas, preferences and our outrage in believing we have been victimized. Of course there are people and groups who have been ill-treated.  The problem is that the Internet not only connects us and provides a means of sharing experiences and aims, it multiplies and intensifies our anger and resentment against what we perceive as the cause or the beneficiaries of historical wrongs.  By doing so it separates us from each other and weakens our sense of community and democracy.  The Internet has given us a “voice”.  AI applications have provided the fuel for growing social discord. This has unleashed ignorance, bias and hate in a closed universe of true believers who create their own identity communities in which pathologies of hate and resentment are reinforced.  

True Believers, “Gangs” and Organizational Bias

The problem, as Yale professor Robert Dahl has written, is that special interest groups, “gangs” and the like always end up as closed systems with their own agendas and ways of thinking to the extent that others are “outsiders”.  Dahl describes how organizational behavior —and formal and informal identity groups and “gangs” are organizations—define us, limit our focus, and control how we view others in terms of their relationship to our “organization”.  

“Organizations … are not mere relay stations that receive and send signals from their members about their interests.  Organizations amplify the signals and generate new ones.  Often they sharpen particularistic demands at the expense of broader needs, and short-run against long-run needs.  …. Leaders therefore play down potential cleavages and conflicts among their own members and exaggerate the salience of conflicts with outsiders.  Organizations thereby strengthen both solidarity and division, cohesion and conflict; they reinforce solidarity among members and conflicts with nonmembers.  Because associations help to fragment the concerns of citizens, interests that many citizens might share—latent ones perhaps—may be slighted.” [Robert A. Dahl, Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control 45 (Yale University Press 1982).  Hereafter, Dahl, Pluralist Democracy.]

The organizational power granted by the Internet has had a profound impact on our culture on every level.  Access to the power of the Internet has stimulated communications that are vile, malicious, predatory and even insane. It has allowed criminals to expand their ability to harm, cheat and abuse. It has brought out the worst in humanity to the point where, even with all its incredible benefits, the Internet is the means by which we become untrusting and cynical about society and other humans.  Left to function in its current way, the Internet will cause the devolution of human society because it strips away essential illusions and ideals and allows us to see negative tendencies in humanity far too clearly.  

One obvious objection to elimination of anonymity arises from the phenomenon of “doxing.” Doxing is a form of cyber-attack.  It refers to the practice of identifying targets and publishing personal information about those targets.  This is done for the purpose of embarrassing or shaming others or motivating those who hold opposing views to be quiet due to harassment and intimidation through telephonic or electronic intrusions, staged protests outside their homes, demands they lose their jobs, stalking and confrontations, or other consequences.

This is an example of the fanaticism that has gripped our society.  Such behaviors should be recognized as serious threats against persons, property, families and honest communication.  The “doxer” fully intends that the targets should be harassed and intimidated and take that action of doxing hoping and intending to set those possibilities in motion even if from a safe distance.    There are numerous statutes that make threats and intimidation a crime so we are not inventing anything new as was done with the highly subjective and divisive category of “hate crimes”.  Doxing is a form of deliberate threat that should be criminalized and accompanied by serious sanctions.

John Gardner sums up what we are experiencing in his warning about the dangers of “true believers”. 

“[E]very line of behavior has its pathology, and there is pathology of dedication.  ….  [T]here is the “true believer” who surrenders himself to a mass movement or to dogmatic beliefs in order to escape the responsibilities of freedom.  A free society does not invite that kind of allegiance.” [He adds] … commitment to worthy goals becomes so fanatical (among the groups and organizations) that they destroy as much as they create.  And there is the “true believer” who surrenders himself to a mass movement or to dogmatic beliefs in order to escape the responsibilities of freedom.  A free society does not invite that kind of allegiance.  It wants only one kind of devotion, the devotion of free, rational, responsible individuals.” [John W. Gardner, Excellence: Can We be Free and Excellent Too?  at 180 (1987).]  

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