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The "Anonymous" Problem

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It was the evening of February 13, 2011, and fans of teen sensation Justin Bieber were shocked.  At the 2011 "Grammy Awards"—the annual honors given to artists by the American National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences—many had expected Bieber to receive the "Grammy" award for "Best New Artist." Instead, however, the award went to singer and jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding.


That was shocking enough for many, but a greater shock occurred over the next few hours, as outraged Bieber fans expressed their anger by editing the "Esperanza Spalding" page on Wikipedia. Wikipedia bills itself as "the free encyclopedia anyone can edit"—so, the mere fact of edits was no surprise. The surprise was in the cruelty and anger revealed in so many of the edits. "JUSTIN BIEBER DESERVED IT GO DIE IN A HOLE. WHO THE HECK ARE YOU ANYWAY?" was just one of the less-offensive comments ("Bieber Fans Go On Grammy-Fueled Wikipedia Rampage," msnbc.com, February 14, 2011).

Some might laugh this off as a tribute to the intensity of "True Beliebers"—but in fact it reflects an increasingly disrespectful and abusive spirit that is becoming more and more commonplace in our socially networked world.

Cloaked in Anonymity

Sports Illustrated columnist Jeff Pearlman says he has noticed a growing belligerence in his readers' correspondence over the last 15 years. He described a recent exchange he had with a reader through the social-networking service Twitter. It started with "snide and rude" comments about one of Pearlman's blog postings. The reader eventually punctuated his venom by deceptively linking to an extremely offensive picture, which Pearlman opened while his 7-year-old daughter sat next to him.

Outraged, he decided to find out who was behind these attacks. After some investigation, Pearlman was able to uncover his critic's identity, and he phoned him. The attacker turned out to be a Missouri college student who, when talking to Pearlman over the telephone, "was meek and apologetic," saying he was "just trying to get a rise" out of the sportswriter ("Tracking Down My Online Haters," CNN.com, January 21, 2011).

Pearlman observes that this reader's "online behavior is far from an anomaly. Anyone who writes or is written about is now a potential target for abuse. Online civility—if it ever existed—has withered up and died. And it's only getting worse" (ibid.).

What is it that allows someone who is "meek and apologetic" in direct personal communication to be so rude and uncivil online? Pearlman suggests that, "cloaked in the anonymity provided by the Internet," an attacker can feel detached from the consequences of his actions, as if anonymity granted "superhuman powers" that allow him to say (or write) whatever he feels, not having to worry about confronting the person he attacks.

Have you ever noticed that the most vicious online comments are often posted by people who do not use their real names? What would happen if people were held accountable for their words—as was the case when the popular site Facebook.com recently made a change in its commenting system? One technology site that uses a comment system similar to Facebook's reported that, within hours of implementing the change "most of the anonymous trolls who have come to call TechCrunch comments a second home are gone" ("The Pros And Cons Of Facebook Comments," TechCrunch.com, March 1, 2011).

The TechCrunch editors went on to observe that, "of course, some people don't want to comment with their real names for good reason (they want to speak freely without fear of reprisals), but for the most part in practice anonymity was abused. It was used mostly as a shield to hide behind and throw out invective" (ibid.).

As with many things in life, not everything on the Internet is as it seems—and this very much applies to notions of anonymity. Many who post online assume that they can remain completely anonymous by using a pseudonymous "moniker." Yet, as sportswriter Pearlman's story illustrates, anyone online can eventually be tracked down. Sometimes technological tools are enough; other times it may require legal action that forces discovery of a poster's actual identity.

Earlier this year, an Indiana judge ordered that the names of "anonymous" online comment writers on three websites be handed over in a defamation lawsuit ("Judge Orders the Handover of Names and Other Author Information Regarding Anonymous Web Comments," Editorsweblog.org, March 2, 2011). Although much wrangling over pertinent legal issues will play out in the courts before a decision is final, the article warns readers to "be careful what you write when supposedly commenting under the guise of anonymity" (ibid.).

The Deeper Problem

Legal issues aside, it is clear that no Web site's comment policy—and no legal precedent—will get to the heart of the deeper problem: the human nature that excuses and abets people's rudeness and incivility toward others. As is so often the case, your Bible reveals where the real problem lies.

Jesus Christ, sparring verbally with Pharisees trying to trap Him with their arguments, told the gathered crowd, "not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man" (Matthew 15:11). Later, He explained to His disciples that, "those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (vv. 18–19).

Our hearts reflect our thoughts. Jesus pointed to attitudes and actions that originate inside a person, including at least two that directly involve injurious words. In fact, in this context, the word "blasphemies" can be defined, according to the Complete Word Study Bible, as "verbal abuse against someone which denotes the very worst type of slander… wounding someone's reputation by evil reports, evil speaking."

This sounds a lot like the comments sportswriter Pearlman faced—or like those that tried to trash Grammy winner Spalding. Yet these are just two examples out of the countless attacks of similar tone being posted online daily.

What is inside us will ultimately be expressed by our personal communication—be it good or bad. Christ explained, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). If the "treasure" of our heart is negative, negative communication will be the result.

Online commenters at National Public Radio's Web site are given a piece of advice that we all would do well to consider before making an "anonymous" comment: "Before you submit a comment, ask yourself this question: If I had to put my real name with this, would I hit 'publish?' If the answer is no, the better move might be to hit 'delete'" ("Why Have Many Comments About the Attack on Lara Logan Been Removed?," NPR.org, February 16, 2011).

This is right in line with the plain instruction of God's word. "The heart of a righteous person carefully considers how to answer, but the mouths of wicked people pour out a flood of evil things" (Proverbs 15:28, God's Word Translation).

So, the next time you are tempted to respond rashly, be sure to heed God's counsel. Consider how to answer. Anonymous or not—and you are probably not as anonymous as you think—your words are a reflection of who and what you are.

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