For Good or for Evil?

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Remember Deep Throat? He captured the imagination of a nation and gained notoriety as the secret informant who helped expose the Watergate scandal in the early ’70s.

Though his true identity was finally revealed in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, Deep Throat hid for more than 30 years behind the shroud of his mysterious persona. The jury is still out on whether the move was incredibly cowardly or incredibly genius.

But here we are, a few decades later, and kids in select schools across the United States are taking a cue from Felt. A CNN article published a few weeks ago spotlighted a Web site created by a college student that allows students to anonymously report bullies and offer up information about drugs, theft and harassment to school administrators — things they otherwise might not do for fear of being identified.

To some, this might seem like a fair proposition. After all, the perpetrator gets caught, the innocent person who reports it walks away unscathed, justice prevails and everybody’s happy. Right?

Well, that’s how it would work in a perfect world. But in reality, there are users out there who are more inclined to abuse anonymity for their own personal gratification and selfish motives. And the Internet makes this deception even easier.

For example, there exist legitimate, functioning Web sites — such as Mybiggestcomplaint.com and JustRage.com — that encourage users to vent their frustrations publicly. Users can post vitriolic attacks, expletives and all, on any topic of their choice for the whole world to see — all under the cloak of anonymity, of course.

So the question really isn’t whether someone should be allowed to post profanities, potentially libelous or defamatory comments or just plain nonsensical information online, but rather if it is ethical to have them to so without being required to claim any responsibility for the post.

It’s one thing to use a negative, yet harmless adjective to describe someone — not that I’m advocating that. But could you imagine such serious accusations as harassment or rape that cannot be attributed to their rightful sources?

On the flipside, consider what might happen to legitimate anonymous posters. Of course, anonymity does not automatically indicate the source is untrustworthy, but how can anyone know whether to take the contents of a post at face value? It would be near impossible to weed out the legitimate posts from those that were intended simply for a laugh.

That leads me to conclude that posting anonymously comes with some considerable ethical implications. The poster has the power to choose between good and evil, right and wrong — and whether the decision is made split-second or premeditated, posting anonymously could set off a sequence of events that fundamentally impacts the lives of others.

Can the Internet be blamed for every instance of such malicious conduct? It seems to me the answer is that the Internet is comparable to any other tool that is introduced for the betterment of mankind — with each advancement comes another opportunity for destruction. It just depends on the hands in which it lies. 

–  Deanna Hartley, dhartley@certmag.com

 

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Deanna Hartley

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