Saturday, 9 November 2013

Anonymity: Friend Or Foe?

Inspired by this article. Date Started: 7/11/13    Date Completed: 8/11/13    Date First Published: 8/11/13

The basics of anonymity

Economists say there are three incentives to any man, woman or child: moral, social, and financial.

  1. A moral incentive is one that evokes judgements of how to transpire the most happy and/or suffering-free result for oneself or for a friend.
  2. A social incentive is one that evokes judgments of how to transpire the most socially convenient result for oneself, in consideration of the perceptions of others, and of consequent popularity.
  3. A financial incentive is one that evokes judgments of how to transpire the greatest material or financial wealth, for oneself.
When we are anonymous, social incentives evaporate away (much faster in some contexts than others) because we realise that we cannot be held accountable for our actions - associations might be made with a hastily-formulated profile, or a proxy IP address, or a pseudonym in a 'paper, but we can walk through a busy marketplace and nobody will be able to link our actions with ourself. [1]

The causation behind onymity (and therefore an-onymity) is one that works through social responsibility – effectively, peer pressure (a term that i replace with ‘peer affirmation’ for favourable behaviours, although it’s basically the same thing). [2]

The extremes of onymity

In an ideally liberal world, where all laws are just and moral, peer pressure always helps less-morally-advanced individuals to get their moral judgements right. When someone asks “what should i do?” the answer they get back is always the right one.

Peer affirmation. Always helps. Brilliant.

In an inideally conservative world, where laws are sloppily formulated and are frequently unjust and amoral, if not explicitly immoral (e.g. a blasphemy law), peer pressure always hinders less-morally-advanced individuals to get their moral judgements right. When someone asks “what should i do?” the answer they get back is a terribly bigoted one. [3]

Peer pressure. Always hurts. Awful.

So being identifiable and accountable to your peers is not an intrinsically moral thing – it merely exacerbates the prevalent culture of the time. If you exist in a moral culture, then your peers will pressure you to do a moral thing, and if you live in an immoral culture, then they will pressure you to do an immoral thing. [4]

Onymity and control

The social incentive, in the context of open surveillance e.g. CCTV (as opposed to covert surveillance e.g. NSA/GCHQ) works in an authoritarian way. The ‘rules’ are decided by the most powerful entity – be it a State, a Church, a Corporation, etc – and everyone just tows the metaphorical line, because they know they’ll get in trouble if they breach ‘the rules’.

This, of course, is not morality. Rules can be arbitrary, and morality cannot – morality is rooted in objective appreciations of experience.

But as we saw in our thought-experiments of idealised worlds, a truly moral rule-setter can act as a tool of pragmatism – clearing up situations until the entities involved understand what they did wrongly, and determine not to do so again. On the other hand, they can act as a tool to the selfish – crushing dissent, and inhibiting good-doers from making the changes that would be necessary to make the world more moral.

Whether this surveillance benefits or harms a society, depends on the pre-existing cultural infrastructure of that society.

When onymity is essential

States do not do malevolent things if the governments who occupy them have no interest in doing those things. And governments have no interest in doing those things when they are selected to represent electorates who have no interest in doing those things... unless the candidates can con their electorate.

This is all part of the culture of the country. Without openness - 'open government' - an MP can get away with exploiting their position for personal gain, that would otherwise anger their electorate, and lead to them forfeiting any ability to win a future election.

This alone is not enough to create a democratic eutopia, because for that to happen, the electorate would have to be infinitely wise - the sociological equivalent of capitalism's 'free market hypothesis'. "The economy is always right because it knows everything..." except it doesn't. In fact, in current culture, both the economy and the electorate know very little. All rein-holding parties are benefited by leaking as little information as possible.

The consequence is, at least as this quote says: "In a democracy, people get the government they deserve"

If people don't put extensive effort in to see through the propaganda, then they get their decisions wrong. But the fog is thick. This is not pragmatic democracy.

To get anywhere near the former scenario - the liberal ideal - we must not have anonymous power - we must have freedom of information - we must know what governments are thinking, discussing, and doing; we must know what corporations are thinking, discussing, and doing; we must know what cult leaders are thinking, discussing, and doing.

Knowing their every move can be seen and interrogated, without them having any ability to resist the truth getting out, makes people a lot more cautious when thinking about what to do. This is generic sociology - it applies to more than governments.

Bullies don't like to be found out. Teachers can be spiteful to classes, and sweeter than pie at Parents' Evening. Litter-bugs think twice if they know they're being watched. Industry representatives plead and paw for financial support to governments and councillors, then boast of their achievements to clients and shareholders. Trade mags boast of massive mark-ups, while consumer-targeted adverts claim low prices! Stationery disappears from offices if they think their colleagues won't notice. Would you do that in someone else's home?

The Media plays a massive role in informing us of these inconsistencies in behaviour. We can not be informed to any substantial extent, without them. But because they are usually sidetracked by profit, journalistic standards fall, and they become complicit in the deception - ignoring important information, and distracting us with cheap, shallow sensationalism.

It is the latter scenario - the conservative inideal - that libertarian conspiracy ‘theorists’ find easy to believe is already the case, because they pessimistically concentrate on the threats that anonymous powers might pose to one or more of their own behaviours, and ignore the benefits that might be afforded them.

In the USA, for example, libertarianism tends to align with gun-wielding, the anti-GM superstition, various conspiracy ‘theories’ such as alien visitation cover-up, the magical properties of hemp, and the Creationist Christian Bush Administration employing their sworn enemies - Islamic terrorists – to fly an aeroplane into one of their own landmarks, but then blow it up themselves anyway, along with another building just up the road, and part of the Pentagon that they were working in at the time, etc etc etc.

This kind of absurd rambling is typical of ‘conspiracy theorists’ because they lack the ability to trust entities that are much more powerful than themselves.

And so ensues a torrent of nonsense, in an attempt to demonise those entities, and justify the loathing of them. The anti-GM movement, too, has nothing to do with any real technique employed to genetically engineer crops – its root motivator is fear of the profit-motivated Monsanto.

But why have i permitted myself to ramble on about libertarianism, rather than anonymity?

Because libertarians fear scientific organisations as well as superstitious ones – they fear the honest, as well as the devious – whenever they are powerful.

It’s when the rule-makers are unaccountably powerful, that the fears of libertarians seem justified. If they seemed to earnestly enforce genuinely pro-social, moral precedents, then we wouldn’t need anonymity.

But we do need it. Precisely because they do not do so.

When anonymity is essential

Libertarianism is strong in the USA, where they waste $7 billion per year on the TSA (the people who grope travellers, at airports) and $12 billion per year on the NSA (the people who listen into your phone calls, just in case you say something interesting).

Federal, capitalist America is a land where little men have negligible power against the might of Monsanto/Coca-Cola/Exxon... a long list of wealthy organisations, with well-paid, well-fed, in-house legal teams.

They also have access to the more corrupt accountancies, who are willing to administrate attempts to evade the paying of tax (they being accountants, of course, know the legislature and all its loopholes) and also to manipulate governments (as has happened extensively in the UK) to manifest legislature that they and only they can understand (thereby creating their own niche world of corruption) with built-in loopholes for them to exploit on their clients’ behalves. [5]

These services, of course, are only accessibly to those who can afford to pay these firms for the privilege. Thousands go to the accountants who shame their profession as financial regulators, and millions... don’t go back to the Revenue, and the public coffers.

These rules are made through selfishness – not through quasi-moral pragmatism. I shall remind you of this sentence:

“a truly moral rule-setter can act as a tool of pragmatism... On the other hand, they can act as a tool to the selfish
In my perception, we do not exist in a world grounded firmly into the conservative inideal. We have made progress, over the centuries and decades, toward the liberal ideal, but we are still nowhere near close enough to abandon our need for anonymity. We are hovering around the mid-ground.

In any war, it is the best-armed side that wins. The side with the greatest technological advancements holds a massive advantage against their foe. It is no different when that war is waged with words and pictures.

It is foolish to think that organisations whose profit-margins, for example, were threatened by criticism, would be willing to play on a level playing field:

Quacks are notoriously litigious because they know they cannot, and never have, won an argument about the efficacy of the claims they employ, in order to convince others to give them their money! The weaponry of a lawsuit is enough to scare many people away, especially if they are a less-than-rich blogger (for example, me), who exposes charlatans merely because they can, and feel they should, as part of a social responsibility to the quack’s potential victims.

The piss-as-a-cancer-cure centre, run by Stanislas Burzysnki, in Houston, has even gone as far as threatening a 17-year-old boy with the threat ‘we know where you live’. And i’m not exaggerating!
{Bad Pharma tends to be less litigious, because they know that legal cases make them look bad.}

The Oil Industry, with its Cold War outlook on the world’s economic and social state, seems to have no qualms about the deaths that occur on their behalf.

Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and pretty much any company that deals in your personal information, seems to have no qualms about keeping that information on file, indefinitely. MPs are notorious for leaving documents on trains – but they’re not alone in losing documents that contain the personal details of millions of people.

Scarily, they also seem quite happy to sell your personal data to other organisations, that wish to use them to target advertising at you – to exploit your every weakness – to manipulate you into buying their product. The control over decisions about your life will be wrested from your hands, into those whose interests are their own – and not yours! I’d rather have my life run by a truly-independent computer algorithm, than a marketing department. [6]

And then there is the libertarian’s biggest nightmare – State surveillance. Big Brother is watching. They’re erratic and feckless, but they have the power to create records you don’t even know exist, list all of your friends who are already on other lists, and maybe even arrest you, if you make a mistake that you instantly regretted.
We have not yet seen what might be done with this data, as the situation progresses, although it will probably run along familiar lines, but on a much larger scale.

We need Wikileaks. We need whistleblowers. We need genuine openness of government

Only then will we have moral accountability in these organisations – States that regulate Corporations – Medias that regulate States – and laws that truly enact justice, executed by legal eagles, without being bought by expensive, enthusiastic, legal vultures.

We need the Web – and we need the ability to be anonymous on it – because only there can criticism truly be free and open. Whenever an organisation condemns ‘trolls’ on the web – whether they’re a politician, or a priest, or a newspaper editor, they’re often fearing that freedom of criticism.

Let's face it - criticism on the Web is relentless. If you say anything wrong, someone can spot it. They can send you a hyperlink that proves you wrong, and leave you feeling embarrassed. That can’t happen in print, or in a face-to-face conversation, or even in some courts of law. And that’s scary to anyone who’s used to getting away with mistakes, or deceits.

This is why thunderf00t described the internet as a place “where religions come to die” – antitheism is strong on the Web because knowledge is easily accessed, and there’s nothing the religionists can do to prevent independents or each other from finding it, without separating themselves from the Web entirely.

Don’t let fear of trolls convince you that this freedom should be suspended. It is worth too much. How else would we know of Hamza Kashgari – the man who faced the death sentence for three utterly-inoffensive tweets that did no more than advocate basic humanitarian respect. Arrested and imprisoned in February 2012, he made his first tweet for two years, one week ago.

It’s not callous to say that on-line bullying is a lesser evil, because the evils that we (including those bullied) face without the anonymity of those who do us massive and personally-dangerous favours, are far greater threats. [7]

In the war against selfishness, corruption, and bullying in all its forms, the freedom that anonymity permits people, on the Web, is crucial.

There will, hopefully, be a time when we can afford to collectively dispose of our anonymity, but now is not that time. We should savour it, for those who use it wisely are doing us great favours.

And those of us who use it unwisely should certainly abandon it - bad habits are sore, and shed with difficulty.



[1] Whistleblowers, who reveal the nefarious machinations of organisations they work in, act with very strong social and moral incentives - they wouldn’t do it if they weren’t thinking of responsibility to other people. ‘Internet trolls’ however – or even the corrupted management that runs the whistleblowers’ organisation – revel in anonymity, and exploit it for opposite purpose. Naming and shaming corporate oligarchs can actually be quite successful, because they value their reputation quite highly. Absolute anonymity is actually becoming harder to maintain, for whistleblowers, activists, and entrepreneurs alike, however, as information-hunters become more skilled at recognising patterns in behaviour and linking them to material individuals.

[2] Peer affirmation can help people lose health-threatening excess weight, stop smoking, or anything more minor – learn to dance/sing, go to a club, or trek across the Pyrenees. All of these things are much easier to do when we have a peer, holding our hand... metaphorically speaking, of course. But when our peers are trying to discourage us, rather than encourage us, that makes it much more difficult. Of course, the context of what would be done is the important thing – harmful things should be discouraged, i’m sure you’ll agree – and beneficial things encouraged. “If she doesn’t give me sex, i’m going to make her” [scornful glares, all around]. “I’m thinking of going for that job i’ve always wanted” [cries of “yeah – you go, girl!”].

[3] And, of course, the more morally advanced are hindered to get their decisions put into practice. Blasphemy laws are perfect examples of stupid laws that prohibit genuine leadership from taking place – they lead to the condemnation of anyone who might reveal the truth to anyone else, and scapegoat that person as the perpetrator of a nonsense crime. This is why totalitarian regimes, that seek ultimate power, lead to silenced populations – if anyone gripes about anything, wisdom might spread, and that could lead to the regime’s downfall. A socialistic regime, however, is benefitted by this openness, because without communication, no constructive behaviour can ensue – no collaboration can occur – and collaboration is the very essence of socialism. It’s such a shame that fascists have blurred so many people’s perceptions of socialism and communism into one. They couldn’t be much more different.

[4] Of course, in reality, culture is far more complex than this. Cultures are comprised of a multitude of opinions, attitudes, behaviours and beliefs, with memes clumping to each other, through association with the individuals that possess them. This means that a culture can transpire moral decisions of the highest order in one context, but fail monstrously in the next. Religious superstition is famously compartmentalised, in many so-called 'advanced' cultures, where otherwise-intelligent people claim affiliation, simply through received habit that they don't think about much. And then the truly enthusiastic superstitionists claim them as advocates, which is disappointing. The clumping of memes is known to Rationalists under the term 'authority fallacy' - if celebrity A thinks it's cruel to cull badgers, then celebrity A must also be right when they speak on another subject that the fan knows nothing about. Not necessarily so! Friends, too, will mimic each other in belief, as well as behaviour. In a strict, scientific sense, the Ocean Dilemma should be invoked, here (search for it on my blog) -- a person's actions are not necessarily determined by a particular belief they have - it might be a different and contradictory belief that they inherited from a peer,
that caused their actions.

[5] There is a special report on the extent of this corruption in Private Eye issue number 1349, pages 19-22. You can see my upload of scans of the article, by following the link here: 'Private Eye’s report on corruption in Accountancy, from issue 1349'

[6] There is evidence that advertising really does manipulate people into making poorer choices. Unfortunately, this is a poorly studied area (at least, those who study it do not release the information i.e. corporate marketing departments). Here are two examples: advertising alcohol to children; and advertising pharmaceuticals to adults. The latter (a very strong study) found that Pharma's advertising was worryingly successful in persuading patients to request the company's inferior drugs. Scary stuff, indeed.

[7] In my opinion, this is a problem that should be resolved through improvements in parenting. We teach our children how to do everything else - why not how to stay safe on the Web? Any bullying should be quickly condemned and dealt with, but Rationalists are well aware that their intellectual foes are quick to hurl obscenities their way. The same has happened to me. Oh yes - i've had death threats! Fatuous ones, of course - they didn't bother me, because i knew they were just trying to crush dissent from their bigotry, but to a kid who doesn't know whether a threat's serious or not, that would be very scary! That knowledge is all-important. The knowledge that peers will protect them is also important - that is why all organisations must have an anti-bullying policy.

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