With a footnote of the difficulties underlying anonymity, legality, and a ‘free speech’ defense
(the good news is almost a third of this post is a footnote, so you can ignore it)
The term ‘filter bubble’ isn’t exactly new: Eli Pariser wrote the book and did the TEDTalk in 2011, but it‘s still unknown to many. Well, here’s the gist; websites, particularly Google, are personalizing your web experience, including your search results, and they’re not particularly interested in letting you know. Why would they be? Well, at least we know why we should care about personalized information. Pariser identified what he sees as the fundamental problem of filter bubbles in an interview he did over at Brain Pickings:
…personalization is sort of privacy turned inside out: it’s not the problem of controlling what the world knows about you, it’s the problem of what you get to see of the world. We ought to have more control over that — one of the most pernicious things about the filter bubble is that mostly it’s happening invisibly — and we should demand it of the companies we use.
The filter bubble makes things convenient—easier to find what you want when your search engine or browser is diligently trying to offer up things it thinks you’ll want—but there are downsides; commercial sites will see you coming back and charge you more (airlines are notoriously suspected for this) and your search results will bury links that are of less interest to you, shuffling dissenting opinions under the carpet because Google knows they’ll displease you or won’t be of interest—you won’t click, Google won’t get ad revenue. I use Chrome as a browser because it runs the lightest, though I also use Firefox, but I’ve been seriously considering switching Chrome out for Tor. At the very least I like to keep Google on its toes, running searches from Duckduckgo and frequently browsing or signing in and out of my accounts through proxy servers in the Netherlands and UK, but I know that it’s still got plenty on me—I use Gmail, I may as well give up privacy-wise. Every so often I think about entire sections of the Internet that are hard for me to access because I don’t know the ways in and they can be hard to find—the difficulty of discovering the French Internet always bothered me and filter bubbles make only make this harder.
It may be safe and warm inside your own cultural or ideological bubbles, but it’s irresponsible not to be aware of it. Getting outside of the realm of the familiar is important—filter bubbles have a serious potential to limit an individual by preventing exposure to new things, on many levels. It’s easier for this to happen online than in physical life—hard to ignore a protest on the street, but easy when news stories about it might be buried. Obviously this is a specific example, but a person shouldn’t let themselves be limited to things that are catered to them.
On a more fundamental level, the Internet is a great place to be exposed to differing and opposing views. That’s the great thing about it. Sure, I read sites that are created for my specific demographic—a blog for geeky feminist women? Don’t mind if I do. But I visit sites whose target audience is not me—a straight cisgendered white woman. I try to find and frequent sites intended for people with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, sites aimed at an LGTBQ audience, because to simply read what’s targeted at me is limiting and I risk being blind to views held or issues faced by others. I also know the sites that I think perpetuate or insulate views I find illogical or even reprehensible. Anti-vaccine advocacy sites, for example, or MRA site (Men’s Rights Activists, who may have legitimate concerns, but frankly delegitimize their own causes by expounding the rhetoric of modern men being crushed under the boot of the cruel and tyrannical feminazi oppressors), or SafeLibraries (which touts the American Library Association as nefarious peddlers of pornography to children). Not all the time, but I won’t just immediately close a site I disagree with. It’s important to know your values and to understand those of others, even if they challenge yours—especially if they challenge yours. If your beliefs can’t hold up against challenges, then what good are they? Of course, eventually I need a hug because the Internet made me sad/mad, but hey, that’s what friends and partners are for.
Chris Baraniuk, in an article on the filter bubble, makes note of what he’s termed ‘The Elective Filter Bubble,’ created by unfollowing or blocking those people on social media whose views you disagree with. This is essentially a reflection of real life social interactions where you hang out with people like you, but he finishes his article by asking ‘knowing that we, as a species, are inclined this way, is it any wonder that the Filter Bubble exists?’ Well, no, it isn’t, because we know it’s created artificially. That’s the problem; it’s created through algorithms, not through deliberately made choices. The big issue with the filter bubble is not knowing about it, not realizing the dangers of that ignorance, and not keeping an eye out for increasingly tailored access to online information. It’s getting between us and information, shaping the way we search, and it’s by and large doing so without our knowledge.
In terms of the elective filter bubble, well, for all of Facebook’s constant and dubious changes to privacy settings, you have reasonable control over what you see. Throw in AdBlocker and it’s relatively easy to ignore the ‘suggested links’. Yeah, it’s pushing stuff that it thinks I’ll like to the top of my feed, but my Facebook feed isn’t exactly where I get all my news. Facebook, for me, is not a forum for the wider world, fair game for outside voices, like the rest of the Internet. Someone says something I find offensive, they’re gone. Bring on the elective filter bubble. I make an concerted effort not to filter the rest of the world, but primary uses for Facebook are the chat feature, to talk to friends who I’ve moved away from, or events, where I rsvp for in-person attendance. Sure, I upload photos, post to walls, ‘like’ things, but ultimately it’s a site I use to communicate with a non-virtual crowd, not the world at large. Facebook is—more or less—a reflection of IRL (In Real Life) relationships, where, yes, I tend not to befriend people who might hold different values that ‘challenge’ my views because there’s only so much time for real friends, and I’m not wasting it on someone if their views kind of make me think they’re jerks. It’s mostly just old school friends or new school friends, anyway.
That said, my Facebook and WordPress/Twitter/Goodread accounts may be separate, even though it’s not like I’m running a secret identity here. I link to the posts I write all fairly frequently because this is a public blog, why wouldn’t I want IRL friends on it too? The disassociation between online identities and ‘real’ life is hardly unusual.
For years I was a serious lurker—a peculiar status built from watching Internet communities over years without engaging. I watched with amazement as people created and built, watched with resignation as trolls sought to anger or offend. Honestly, I’m not sure anything on the internet could really shock me. It started because when I was younger, you never disclosed personal details online. Sure, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, but you don’t know that the person you’re chatting with isn’t a dog. A sketchy dog that could be be trying to ingratiate themselves to you so they could get your personal information, show up at your house and murder you. Yeah, things have changed a bit since then.
For myself, any online presence is preformative in a way that doesn’t feel as natural as real life—something about words, I think. I find choosing words is harder than choosing an outfit, knowing that anything put online is going to linger, to be perused. Maybe you keep a private blog, but even then, it’s not the same as keeping a journal. There’s always the possibility of exposure. Maybe some do it because the difficulty of access makes it more private to them personally—post privately to a blog and no sibling can read it without the password, whereas they could pilfer a book journal from under your mattress. But online you can get hacked by a total stranger. (I mean, they probably wouldn’t bother, but they could.) Whatever you put online, no matter the venue or intent is ‘out there.’
This doesn’t mean that anonymity shouldn’t be valued, it means that you weigh anonymous actions against the possibility of the linking of your online and offline identity. An anonymous whistleblower, for example, knows the possible consequences of being uncovered. The notorious troll Violencrantz/Michael Brutsch—creator and/or moderator of subreddits (forums within Reddit) like ‘Jailbait’ and ‘Creepshots’ among other, truly horrifying titles—being interviewed by the journalist who had discovered his real-life identity, begged the man not to dox him (reveal his identifying information), saying “I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the Internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time.” When asked if he regretted anything he’d done now that he was to be ‘unmasked’, Brutsch said he didn’t: “I would stand by exactly what I’ve done.” Alright, fine. He was a total creep, but he won’t disown his online actions. Kind of:
The problem was, he explained, that if his identity got out, his many enemies would start attaching lies to his name because they simply don’t like his views. They would say he was a child pornographer, when all he had done was spearhead the distribution of thousands of legal photos of underage girls. They would say the fact that he created a subreddit dedicated to Hitler meant he was anti-Semitic, when really it was just trolling. (Brutsch says he’s got Jewish blood himself: “If you see a picture of me, I’m about as Jewish looking as they get.”) They would Google-bomb his name and the word “pedophile” along with his publicly-traded company’s name.
Clearly Brustch knew what would happen. He asked the journalist, Adrian Chen, multiple times what he could do to stop Chen from outing him:
“I’m like the spy who’s found out,” he said. “I’ll do anything. If you want me to stop posting, delete whatever I posted, whatever. I am at your mercy because I really can’t think of anything worse that could possibly happen. It’s not like I do anything illegal.”
Maybe Brutsch didn’t do anything illegal, but he did things that many would consider immoral. Can you really claim that you stand behind the things you’ve done, but turn around and say ‘but just don’t say that it was me that did them. Alright, I mean, some people may have seen it that way, but I would like to avoid consequences, please’? Yes, he got fired. As he knew he would if he were outed—he made enemies online for fun. ***
I’m not condoning doxxing and I think there’s a complicated conversation to be had about online anonymity and its abuse, but the real crux of the issue here is Brutsch’s ambivalence about the separation of the two factions of his identity. Maybe the notion that anonymous identities are somehow truly inauthentic or separate from ‘real’ identities is a comfortable fiction left over from the early days of ‘no one knows you’re a dog’-Internet. Sure, no one knew you were a dog but did that ever actually stop you from being a dog? This isn’t ReBoot, you’re not inside a virtual, as essentially a synonym for magical, alternate reality. Online identity and ‘real life’ identity are not separate, they’re fragments of the same whole. You can’t claim independence from your online identity. It wasn’t me, it was jessy_488! (Sorry to any jessy_488’s getting thrown under the bus here). Online may not be a space, but it’s certainly a place, and is that sense is just a real as your bedroom, your classroom, your workplace. These physical spaces don’t bleed over, but online the lines are nebulous. Post something casually and it can come back to bite you professionally. Every move you make online is recorded and permanent in the way that real-life factions of your identity are not.
I differentiate and draw lines between my fragmented online identities for personal reasons, but ultimately I know they aren’t separate. So, sure, I just don’t do anything online that I would be ashamed of. Things I might be embarrassed by? Yeah, obviously, I’ve been online since sixth grade. Of course, it’s the same principle I apply in ‘real life’ but frankly even if I didn’t, things can’t follow you around quite as easily. In the case of trolling, well, if I did troll, then I would be using a different calculation to decide what I do online: thrill of upsetting others vs. social fallout if revealed.
That’s how it works for me personally but I know that it’s because I’m lucky; I don’t have to make any tough decisions about things like whistleblowing; I don’t live in a country where online censorship is an issue that could cause serious danger to myself as an individual; I’ve never been stalked or been in an abusive relationship; and I don’t get involved in flame wars or piss off trolls who might dox to encourage harassment. It’s easy for me to say because I have a fairly limited presence online and have never encountered real trouble with anonymity. I’ve never needed to be anonymous. Doxxing isn’t illegal, but it has the deeply problematic intention: not of bringing people to justice under the law, but of being used to harass and intimidate, whether as a tool for hacktivists or simply people who feel they’ve been crossed and want some personal revenge. Ultimately it runs up against the fundamental problem of what gives someone the right to dox or to decide who deserves doxxed.
It’s not that I don’t believe people are entitled to anonymity online, it’s that anonymity online should never be assumed or taken for granted.