During our school days, handwritten notes were a popular means of communication between students during monitored study periods which required a strict silence and a full focus on the homework for the next day. Our teachers, who invigilated these periods, seemed to have eyes in the back of their heads, for many such notes being passed around were deftly intercepted by them. The writer of the note was admonished and often given a mild punishment too. Over time, note senders adapted to the risky terrain by omitting to sign their names.
They reasoned that anonymity conferred safety. Contrary to their calculations, the situation worsened. The teachers punished the entire class. They seemed angrier in general, especially about the fact that the notes were unsigned. The values the teachers held dear made them deeply uncomfortable about any person not taking responsibility for something they expressed. They reckoned that a person should be able to stand by what they stated. Owning your words forced you to consider carefully what you wanted to say and also how you wanted to say it.
The only time anonymity was somewhat appreciated, was when someone hesitated to take the credit for something good. Whether for an elegant poem, an impactful quote or a kind donation. In fact, true philanthropy in those days was supposed to be done discreetly so as not to cause any embarrassment to the beneficiary. Like white lies, ‘white anonymity’ could thus sometimes be acceptable.
Our teachers of old, would however, be dismayed at the high level of anonymity, accompanied by a lack of transparency that pervades every aspect of our lives today, ranging from everyday social media communications to economics to politics.
In the cyber world, people hide behind false identities, and artificial intelligence bots are programmed to masquerade as humans. This anonymity is very unwelcome as regular social media users can be bullied with few consequences for the culprit.
Much of the trolling on social media happens via anonymous handles. Hiding behind a veil makes people reckless. Should all social media users be forced to identify themselves customarily, incidences of harassment would reduce substantially.
The tremendous resources that are currently utilised in investigating unwelcome speech would be cut down. Tracing identities of troublemakers would not be necessary as it would be plain for everyone to see who is at fault.
Apart from bullying, the cyber user is open to manipulation as well. This is on account of the non-transparency to the public of the company’s algorithmic designs and principles. The manipulation is insidious and here is how it plays out : users of several popular SM platforms choose topics and handles to follow.
However, non-transparent algorithms regulate the content that comes on view. So, if for example, a user ‘likes’ a couple of photos of cuisine, their feed will be flooded with images and content related to delectable delicacies, even though they are not following any chefs or have not selected food as a chosen topic of interest.
The critical issue here is, explicit permission has not been given to anybody, leave alone an anonymous bot, to ‘curate’ our lists for us. This curation is across sites e.g. the ‘percentage matches’ of movie viewing sites. Nowadays, the ‘word of mouth’ of family and friends is increasingly getting replaced by ‘word of bot’.
All this targeted meddling discourages deeper deliberation, making users mentally lazy. They are ready to go with the manipulated ‘flow’ and become statistics for the money generation apart from getting more deeply hooked to their screens. Also, certain types of conversations get amplified by these programmed algorithms and others not. They are designed to pick out ‘leanings’ (such as right or left leaning) rather than meaningful conversations (such as climate change or gender equality for instance).
So instead of the popular mediums of communication being used to bring about impactful change, they accidentally or deliberately end up increasing the polarisation of thought and bring more divisions in society. Were it widely known what instructions computer algorithms for social media have been programmed with and under whose direction, checks and balances could be put in place.
Currently, there are few truly effective external checks. Whistleblowers from social media companies have highlighted how some company bosses take cyber safety feedback from in-house as well as outsourced professional experts poorly; their focus being on hooking followers and garnering profits through selling user information. It is ironical that there are ‘weapons inspectors’ to stall the build-up of arms and ammunition in countries but no such stringent safety checks for algorithm creation. Whereas creation of new platforms of communications among people can be conducive to inclusion and social cohesiveness, manipulation of people’s minds can inculcate addiction and lead to mental breakdowns.
Behind the scenes manipulation of content can give an unfair advantage to businesses and political parties. In fact, the alarming negative power of anonymity was demonstrated recently, when a prominent journalist in India was arrested on the basis of an FIR lodged by an unknown handle. It could well have been a bot.
It was indeed sobering to think that artificial intelligence could get a human into jail, no questions asked. It took the police several months to identify some face behind the handle, retrospectively, long after the journalist was released on bail. In case no anonymity was allowed on any platform, enormous resources would be saved. Cyber police could free up a large proportion of the hours spent in uncovering hidden identities. Like the traffic rules which prevent owners from driving cars with blackened windows, similar rules of transparency would work wonders for cyber traffic! Beyond anonymous words, lie anonymous transactions.
In a country where representatives are elected on manifesto promises of transparency, the electoral bonds – donations to political parties – are opaque. This has been challenged long back by an NGO but the case still languishes in court. Hidden political donations encourage corruption at the highest level as rich businessmen can influence policy and pull strings in the government through these ‘gifts’. Scientists and professionals are obliged to make financial disclosures before giving their medical or technical opinions.
This helps others decide for themselves whether there could be a personal bias in the professional’s recommendation of a particular drug or technology. For example, such a suspicion (albeit fairly unfounded) of bias by pharmaceutical companies also happens to be one of the reasons for a huge pushback against Covid vaccinations in some countries.
Strangely enough, although government decisions impact lives and livelihoods on a large scale, the elected representatives have not seen fit to similarly disclose to the public as to who or what is influencing their actions. At the level of the state, the veil of non-transparency has traditionally surrounded the working of the intelligence services of any state.
Thus, there is limited recourse to justice when there is lack of skill and planning leading to substantial ‘collateral damage’. It is not uncommon for hundreds of civilians to lose their lives as a result of botched up operations with little accountability of the state.
Contrast this with officials who must wear their badges when dispensing their state duties. In the sad case of George Floyd who lost his life unnecessarily and wrongfully in a police encounter, justice could be dispensed as the officer’s identity was known. It is clear that non-anonymity in speech and social media and transparent processes in social life enhance responsibility and accountability, save resources and money and reinforce the good value systems of old. Our teachers sure knew what they were talking about.