Buchaniec: The dangers of anonymity and online comments

Catherine Buchaniec, Assistant Design Editor

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Last week, I watched Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) interview with Stephen Colbert on YouTube. Then I scrolled to the comments section to read what people had to say.

“This girl behaves and speaks like an 8th grader…and is a member of the United States House of Representatives?” said the elusive A B.

“This dingbat waitress is an embarrassment…” commented Uncle Putin — a bold claim from someone claiming to be a relative of one of the world’s most powerful leaders.

Within the first few days of the video’s posting, these were the average critical comments — though tame in comparison to others. Yet both of these comments were made by figures hiding behind their respective screens.

In the digital age, the internet has empowered people, for better and for worse. Protests can be organized in a matter of hours. I can order a textbook and have it arrive the next day. People have an unimaginable amount of access to information and, moreover, each other.

Being anonymous online has the potential for good, especially for those living under authoritarian regimes in other countries. It can provide a forum for people who otherwise would have been subjected to censorship.

However, in more cases than not in the United States and other parts of the globe, anonymity leads to Twitter wars, internet trolls and incendiary comments. With the invention of the internet came the opening of the floodgates — those too afraid to say their position out loud now had a curtain to hide behind. When everything can be shared in seconds, people are more likely to click the button that sends their message to the rest of the world, many times hiding behind a false name.

Herein lies the problem: if you wouldn’t say that in person, why would you say it online?

When someone is hiding behind a phone, tablet or laptop, it is easier to publish the first things that come to mind and forget the consequences. In the case of anonymous YouTube accounts, it leads to racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. It leads to hate.

I have a hard time believing that people would say half the things face-to-face that they post online if given the opportunity to do so. Nowadays, the comments section only unshackles the bigotry that lurks in the shadows of physical conversation. It gives power to those who otherwise would have remained festering in silence due to the norms of social conversation.

There’s a difference between talking to someone — even arguing with someone — in person as opposed to online: It is harder to forget your interlocutor is a human being. A person with feelings and emotions. A person you might even share common ground with on some issues or in life experiences.

Debating in-person provides context — you can see facial expressions and hear tone.

Online abuse and cyber trolling, especially on YouTube, have no place in our society. However, even when one is countering a statement they find bigoted by responding, it only feeds into the hate, forming a snowball of anonymous argument. Ultimately, this only fulfills the goals of the A Bs and Uncle Putins of the world: normalizing perturbing rhetoric.

In a polarized society, we should stand by our words and own what we say. If you can connect a person to the commentary, humanity can be reintroduced into the conversation.

People are allowed to disagree; discourse remains a vital component of any functioning society. Nonetheless, anonymous comments do not accomplish anything. They are simply a means for people to share hate and dehumanize interaction.

Catherine Buchaniec is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at cbuchaniec@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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