Veiled Threats: The downside of anonymity online

Sam Brodsky

In the past few months, Georgetown Day School has undergone a lot of turmoil. Nobody can seem to pinpoint one specific event that sent the entire community into day-long discussions and school-wide meetings, or at least, nobody has publicly announced such event as official. Rather, sporadic episodes of racism, misogyny, assault, and bullying from months and years past have been bubbling up within the walls and hallways of our community, concluding in an outburst of emotion and dramatic upheaval.

A great number of these small yet profoundly hurtful moments seem to take place in the realm of social media. A student posting a racial slur to their Snapchat story. A Facebook post objectifying women. A culturally appropriative Instagram post. However, for millennials these platforms have always existed, and, unfortunately, insensitive uses of them have always been a part of our culture. But there seems to be a whole new type of player being introduced to the game, a profoundly more dangerous and vicious beast that is shaking our community: the anonymous social media platform.

Anonymous social media platforms, such as Whisper and Yik-Yak, allow users to share images and updates just like older medias have but with a twist: users have the option to post anonymously. Additionally, these apps join communities together under the same “hub.” In other words, students have the ability to post anything under the safety of anonymity under a specific school platforms. Apps like Whisper and Yik-Yak have recently become hugely popular among students. They populate students’ phone screens; over ten posts are produced daily in the Whisper app, and students gobble and share the posts like popcorn.

Senior Laurent Guichard shared his concerns: “It’s become a center for spread of misinformation,” he continued “I see people calling out others, things they definitely would not have done in person.” The freedom of virtual anonymity gives students a platform to say or do things that, in reality, would bestow upon them huge consequences.

The administration, having no immediate tools to intervene in these circumstances or prevent students from posting offensive things, can do little to protect students. Regardless, much of the consensus from the town hall meetings weeks ago was that the administration was not doing enough to protect students from marginalization. In one of the most powerful and shocking moments during the school-wide discussions, a student called out an administrator and candidly told him, “You’ve failed me.”

On the other hand, many other students feel Whisper and other anonymous social medias are not the real issue. Junior Josh Shelton thinks it’s just another platform among the many already-existing platforms to express hate: “I don’t think the contribution is significant… There are already so many other platforms. The whiteboard where someone wrote the N-word. The locker room. Or even the hallway. Singling out Whisper just seems arbitrary, and dismissive of the larger issues.” In the response to the idea that students see offensive or evocative things through Whisper they might never see otherwise, Shelton said: “I get exposure to people who I wouldn’t normally get exposure to, or perspectives that I wouldn’t get exposure to. Not necessarily in a good or bad way. It’s just exposure.”

This is a fascinating way to look at the app: an expression of our psychological suppressed feelings, a small glimpse into the minds of students. But when taken out of context, these feelings and emotions lose their purpose and significance in the digital world of  less-than-140-characters. We ultimately don’t know the background behind these statements; they are just orphan thoughts that appear on our phone screens. Whisper, in its inherently pervasive nature, is engineered so posts are dishonest. “The best place to discover secrets around you” is the app’s tagline.

But it’s much more serious than silly gossip that is posted on Whisper. The ability to post anonymously gives students an immense and unprecedented amount of dangerous power. It is the equivalent of racist, misogynistic, offensive vandalism written on the walls of the school but with more layers of graffiti and toxicity: offensive or evocative posts under anonymity make it impossible for the perpetrator to suffer consequences. Now, it’s twice as easy for a student to evoke anger because they will not face any repercussions.

Ultimately, is there a possibility for anonymous social media platforms to be productive? Is there a possibility to create a virtual, anonymous space to share insightful, constructive thoughts on current issues, a realm so boundless and free that it even surpasses the liberty that Georgetown Day School’s “norms” policy grants, yet still maintaining a respectful tone?

I am skeptical.

After a week of meaningful discussions, after hours of meaningful empathizing and listening, after countless students shared experiences of marginalization, after tears and tears of entire grades and teachers, it felt like most, if not everyone, had learned something. Tensions were low; students felt revitalized. On Friday’s community day  I could genuinely sense the feeling of a community being together for once. Students were enjoying cotton candy, jumping on the loft air of the moon bounces, bidding Safeway a heartfelt farewell — it was as though we knew each other better from the conversations that took place and through the means of playful interactions were finally accepting of each other.

In a game of trivia that was set up by the administration before the annual talent show, students could join the game under an anonymous name. Everyone took out their phones,  and soon enough, nasty pseudonyms started quickly popping up on the projected screen. Under the protection of anonymity, and with the easy access of apps, we started seeing words of attack.

Students aren’t getting more racist. They’re not getting more misogynistic. They’re not marginalizing each other more than they did ten or twenty years ago. It’s that now, with the digitalization and virtualization of our interactions, students are only a few clicks away from hurting each other, and we are one screen away of seeing it in real time. Maybe we should focus our efforts and spend more time reflecting and educating ourselves on the perils of anonymity and social media.

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