Anonymity and social discord

Hyperbole has long been the political agitator’s weapon of choice. It costs nothing, and for those of the audience who are susceptible to fear it can be very effective. Now technology has given such antagonists an even greater reason to employ exaggeration. The tools of email, text messaging, and social media allow users to adopt aliases by which to disguise their true identities. This possibility means that the cost for employing hyperbole as a weapon is even lower. Whatever is said anonymously cannot be traced back to a person, so the author suffers no penalty for vile and deceitful rhetoric. The result to society has been a ratcheting up of exaggeration and lies. The shield of an alias makes it easier to use coarse language, to insult and demean those with whom one disagrees, and to cast even relatively small issues as evidence of our inexorable slide into the abyss.

There are certainly good reasons for social media platforms to support anonymity. Whistle blowers, for example, should be protected from retaliation, and the best way to allow them to present their evidence without fear is to give them a way to submit their testimonials anonymously. Witnesses to criminal behavior may need the shield of anonymity while those being charged are tried.

But anonymity is not necessary for most discourse. Anonymity is not likely to improve discussion of, say, public transportation policy. In fact, knowing the true identities of all parties to such a discussion is far more likely to result in respectful dialogue and an exchange of gainful ideas.

Spammers and scammers use fake identities to conceal their true purposes– fake names, fake email addresses, fake phone numbers from your own area code. Why do we allow this? What is the value to society to allowing people to use a fake phone number whose only purpose is to trick the person receiving the call into believing that the caller is someone nearby, someone he may know? I can think of no reason why a caller from Mumbai should be allowed to use a phone number that appears to have originated from your own neighborhood. But telecom companies no doubt make a lot of money by offering such “services.”

As for IP addresses, we could demand that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) disallow anonymous connections, that they ensure that every IP address points back to a real person at a real physical address, and that their directories of IP addresses and person names are available to the general public. That would enable any user of the ISP’s services to convert a user’s IP address to a real name, face, and physical address.

The problem with this option is that there are perfectly valid uses for anonymous connections. Users who work from home may need anonymous connections to defend against man-in-the-middle attacks. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) provides anonymous connections, and it ensures that the entire exchange of information between user and host is fully encrypted, end-to-end. VPN appliances are in common use by private citizens, corporations, and government for all of the reasons cited. So even though a VPN can enable the user to connect to servers in other countries to further disguise the true origin of the connection, it’s far too late to claw back those devices now.

Most ISPs provide some variation of a spam blocker, and a way to report spammers. That is certainly a good start, but each ISP has a different method for reporting spammers, and a different URL. Google, for example, has a special form for reporting spam. The Google form is available here: This form forces the user to parse the offending email into separate components: Source email address, Subject, Body, and Headers. But Comcast simply asks the user to forward suspect messages to These different methods are confusing to the user, and there is little evidence that they are coordinated. If you receive an email at your personal AOL email account that originated from a Hotmail user account, should you report it to AOL, or to Hotmail? In the present state of the market you should report it to Hotmail, since only Hotmail can remove that user from their subscriber database. But if the user forwards the message to AOL rather than Hotmail, will AOL in turn forward it to Hotmail? Answer: probably not.

It would be far easier for users of email clients if they could simply report all spam to one URL, and leave it up to the ISPs to monitor that URL, parse the suspect messages, and assign them to the correct responsible parties. Email clients should make it easy for users to block and report suspect messages, to flag specific email addresses as suspicious, and to whitelist addresses that the user knows are trustworthy. The email clients that are on the market today are by no means uniform in their handling of these use cases.

What about the problem of anonymity? As mentioned above there will always be a need for anonymous connections. But I would suggest that there is also a need for a system that allows users to consciously accept or block anonymous and fake users. When you log into such a system the default would be to block all anonymous and fake users, but you would have the ability to accept such users on a case by case basis. Such a system would put the user in control of the type of information he or she receives. And that is something that is sorely missing in the present market.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved