Online and Anonymous

“Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.”

Ephesians 5:11-12

I want to share some of my thoughts about the celebrity photos which were leaked in late August of this year and the more recent Snapchat leaks from mid-October. As a bit of background, a group of colluding hackers broke into the digital lives of hundreds of celebrities, and in the case of Snapchat, thousands of teens, and then published compromising photos of them on the Internet for worldwide consumption. This was all done completely against the wills of the women and men involved.

Pause and reflect for a moment about how truly messed up this is. On the Internet, nothing can die: data, unlike human memory, is immortal and incorruptible. Files are replicated again and again, with passionless, studied precision. Thanks to the work of a few people, the leaked photos, along with those victimized by it, have passed into a kind of perpetual sexual slavery, available for the viewing of whoever decides to reach out across the net with only the slightest effort.

And so many, many of us – hiding behind the anonymity of a “free Internet” – looked.

It’s so beyond me…Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame. Even people who I know and love say, ‘Oh, yeah, I looked at the pictures’.”

   ~Jennifer Lawrence, Vanity Fair 2014

It’s easy to demonize the hackers who published the photos, but at some point you have to ask yourself, are leaks like this really the fault of a lonely few? Or are all of us somehow part of the injustice that we’d so much like to distance ourselves from?

Part of the price of a more connected world is that increasingly, there are concentric circles of injustice that radiate outwards around events like these. With each widening circle, the distorting effects of an anonymous Internet manifest themselves in different ways, but the injustice remains.

Let’s take a look at a few of these circles.

The First Circle: The criminals

The inmost circle is the easiest to understand and point a finger at. It’s clear that the criminals involved in breaking into private iPhones, Snapchat accounts, or websites in search of profit are carrying out injustice. These hackers are new-age thieves, plain and simple.

But interestingly, anonymity has an unexpected side-affect here: it not only enables more online crime, but also encourages the notion that the harm done is somehow not as real as its physical corollary. That those who are hurt are ambiguously “out there,” and that they are somehow less than fully human because they are beyond our immediate physical space. Under the cloak of anonymity, people will hurt others in ways they wouldn’t even consider doing if they had to face their victims. Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that even crimes that never escape the heart or mind are considered sins. Digital distance is similarly no excuse.

The Second Circle: The distributors

This round of photo leaks was released on a website called 4chan. As a content distributor, it prides itself on anonymity for its posters, as well as its relatively loose policing of the content on the site. 4chan is emblematic of a school of thought that has coalesced around the idea of the Internet as an information equalizer. Under this line of thinking, there is moral virtue in being a neutral conduit for information. They are not responsible for other’s choices to use information inappropriately, and that preserving anonymity is worth any price. This is true, by the way, at least to a limited extent. I think the most classic phrase from this camp is “information wants to be free.” In the post-Snowden era, it’s a captivating idea. But there are enormous issues when data is distributed indiscriminately, with no judgment or regard for the consequences of the distribution.

The problem is that, just as information itself has power and meaning, so does the act of distributing it. If you, as a neutral distributor, pass on terrible images, for example, you are making a statement about that information’s worthiness, a tacit approval (whether you view it that way or not). When people view those images, you have assisted them in finding that data. We have a meaningful role to play in each other’s moral lives, and there is a moral responsibility that comes with distributing information.

An interesting corollary is that if information itself and the act of distributing it have meaning, then there is also meaning attached to who transmits that data. Online anonymity, while valuable in some cases, can strongly dampen the impact and power of information. Imagine for a moment a world where Martin Luther, the Founding Fathers, Gandhi, or more recently the protesters in Hong Kong, had remained fiery, highly eloquent, but completely anonymous Internet users.

The Third Circle: You

Ah yes, you the anonymous user are that widest-reaching circle. Our individual anonymity online, again, presents the illusion that our actions are somehow morally firewalled off from reality. But it is an illusion (and not only from an intellectual perspective either – you really don’t have true anonymity, thanks to the amazing technical capabilities of the Internet’s big players).

But every action you commit online, whether anonymous or not, is filled with meaning. In fact perhaps the most powerful weapon you wield online is what information you choose to reach out and consume. You, and I, have a responsibility to not be part of injustice. In cases like these leaks, that means to not click. Given that responsibility, aren’t we remarkably loose and flippant about our online choices? I know I am.

I’ll leave you with these verses:

At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He replied, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.”

Genesis 3:7-10 [NLT]

“Cowering with shame,” as Jennifer Lawrence put it, is apparently one of our oldest traditions.

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