19 January 2009

The Dark Side of the Internet

[Commentary]

As a college football fan and Notre Dame graduate, I read this interview with the new athletic director at Notre Dame, Jack Swarbrick, with interest. Given Notre Dame's recent football woes, he has significant challenges ahead. What struck me in particular, however, was his comments about the damage that anonymous postings on internet sites can do. Here is the relevant exchange:

Q: Coverage of your athletic programs have changed drastically in the past few years, with cutbacks in the newspaper industry, the growth of non-traditional media, blogs, instant messaging, message boards, etc. In terms of your job, does it change the way you have to approach things?

A: "Yes, it's been so dramatic. It's so pervasive, you almost don't think of it as an isolated event. When we talk at our student-athlete advisory council meetings here, that issue is huge with the kids, because there are elements of the Internet that are so grossly unfair to these young student-athletes.

"An enormous problem is anonymous postings, which are often just flat-out lies. Because the student-athletes have the public profiles at the university, they tend to become victims of it much more than anyone else. So you have that dynamic. You also deal with your student-athletes about Facebook and MySpace — how to caution them about those, how to manage that.

"I was not surprised about the level of interest in what we do, and kind of the passion that surrounds it. But I was very surprised as sort of the tone and the degree of misinformation. It's stunningly specific.

"Somebody will report that I was in a hotel in Florida at 2:30 in the afternoon, talking to Urban Meyer. It's just nonsense, but because it is so specific, because that complete fabrication carries that detail, it becomes credible.

"It's very frustrating to have somebody write about some element of our business, saying that the information came from 'a highly placed source in the athletic department.' It'll be a topic that I know only three of us discussed, so it didn't come from us. It's not possible to have come from us, but people sort of cloak themselves in descriptions like that. It's just part of the deal.

"You'd like everyone externally — all the people who care about our program — to be a little more skeptical about the quality of what they're reading. And I don't mean the traditional media. I think more in terms of things that have an online origin."

I fear this is becoming a widespread, even pervasive, problem. Now almost every website, blog, news story--everything--on the internet allows for anonymous commenting and posting. Most of it is innocent enough, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to protect one's identity for personal, professional, or artistic reasons. Indeed, I believe there is an important place for anonymous or pseudonymous writing, as everyone from "Publius" to Kierkegaard to Mark Twain to George Eliot to C. S. Lewis can attest. (See the incomplete lists of famous anonymous or pseudonymous authors and works here, here, here, and here, for example.)

The problem comes because some people use the cloak of anonymity to provide cover to say (write) false, malicious, and mean-spirited things. And, as Aristotle would have predicted, engaging in vicious activity like that becomes easier, and feels more comfortable, each time one does it. So we have seen a rapid escalation of instances of people saying the most outrageous, filthy, profane, and destructive things, all apparently with no sense of guilt or shame, simply because they can.

An example is the scurrilous site called "Juicy Campus" (to whose site I will not link--a small thing, I realize, but still), which invites college students to post anonymous "juicy" gossip about their fellow students and faculty, all with guaranteed impunity. The results are shocking. Predictable, perhaps, but still shocking.

I wonder whether what we are seeing develop before our eyes is an answer to the Ring of Gyges problem posed to Socrates in Book II of Plato's Republic. The question was whether a person who had perfect assurance of never being discovered or caught would therefore break through all the rules of morality and engage in conduct even he would otherwise acknowledge is immoral and wrong. Socrates answered in the negative, but I wonder whether Glaucon's answer might not be right after all.

It is hard to know what to do about this phenomenon, how to combat the practice, or how to undo the damage that can come from a person making a malicious statement even just once. Another feature of our new digital age, remember, is that once something appears it exists forever. Hence even if the anonymous poster wrote something injudicious in a fit of anger or spite, only to regret it later, it is too late. Though it might be retracted, it cannot be expunged.

Our species developed in conditions very different from this, conditions in which it was possible to start anew and to have one's past mistakes forgotten, conditions in which it was far more difficult for a person to spread false rumors or malicious lies, especially anonymously.
But now people's lives can be devastated and their careers can be destroyed, and, for the moment at least, there is precious little one can do about it. That is a frightening prospect--not only because any one of us might just as easily be the next victim, but also because of what it reveals about human nature.

It may be some time before mores and norms develop that can help us navigate these treacherous social and moral waters. In the meantime, I suppose all one can do is state publicly that slander is wrong and that one should take what one reads on the internet with a large dose of skepticism; and one should frequently remind oneself how pervasively the dark side of humanity is on display on the internet.

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