There may be downsides, but anonymity has given social media its energy
As social media platforms grapple with the complex issue of user anonymity, the case of Twitter stands out. The site — which owes a great deal of credit for its popularity to anonymous users, affectionately termed “anons” — is squarely in the middle of a global discussion surrounding the merits and pitfalls of concealing one’s identity online.
The debate reignited on Sunday when Twitter’s CEO, Elon Musk, defended anons’ right to express potentially divisive views without fear of personal retaliation. In response, former Intellectual Dark Web member Eric Weinstein, quote-tweeting Musk, argued that anonymity is a double-edged sword, often wielded by corporations and institutions for deceptive practices like “astroturfing” and “bot farming”. Both of these operations have occurred across multiple social media platforms and, at least according to some, played a role in shifting public opinion on key matters (Musk himself claimed that Twitter was overrun with bots when he was in the process of acquiring the platform).
Anonymity is a major part of Twitter’s own brand, perhaps its most lasting feature, and many of the biggest or most influential accounts on both the political Left and Right were or are anonymous. Even when doxxed, these accounts, like the Bronze Age Pervert (Yale political science Ph.D. Costin Alamariu) and Kantbot (University of Chicago graduate William Clark), remain best known by their noms de plume.
Indeed, their ideas — often adjacent to or based in conventional academic work, albeit filtered through various Internet-influenced styles of discourse — may need the edginess afforded by anonymity to enable them to reach the wide audiences found in today’s “extremely online” space. Others, like the “shitposter” dril (an aspiring comedian and writer named Paul Dochney), have used the cloud of Twitter anonymity to construct the voice of a character that, as the disappointing performance of Dochney’s Truthpoint: Dark Web Rising television show indicates, perhaps only worked on social media.
For these figures, anonymity serves as a platform for unconventional, often radical, dialogue that may otherwise be stifled under the scrutiny of real-world identities. However, this anonymity has been known to blur the line between the audacious and the deceptive, a fact that is particularly evident in the world of fitness influencing.
Consider the case of the “based anon” health and fitness influencer Carnivore Aurelius, who is known for promoting a certain lifestyle while shielded from scrutiny by his pseudonym. Aurelius, as it happens, has been accused of merely being a marketer who uses memes to sell overpriced liver crisps — supposedly high-quality and handmade, but actually sourced from a national distributor. This isn’t criminal, merely deceptive — Aurelius’s company is an LLC registered in Wyoming under the name of his assistant — but it underscores anonymity’s ability to manipulate audiences, beyond just persuading them in the style of anonymous political pamphleteers from past centuries.
In any event, Weinstein is right about one thing: anonymity is an amoral tool. But Musk is himself correct that Twitter should preserve anonymity. Plenty of big-time users who aren’t anonymous are nonetheless using their accounts to manipulate large numbers of people, often in deceptive or perhaps even harmful ways, but such propagandising isn’t illegal.
While users should educate themselves about the many possible uses of anonymity, it remains a facet of the web’s history that warrants continued protection. Once life online becomes permanently public — perhaps with some sort of digital report card following the user everywhere — then the right to privacy, a cornerstone of the Internet’s decentralised landscape, will be irrevocably lost.