By Libby Purvis.
An almost universal desire is wanting your voice to be heard, your opinion aired. For generations most made do with the village pump, the pub, the pamphlet or, with luck, the letters page of your local ragg. Politicians, clerics, commentators, critics, technical experts and those considering themselves “public intellectuals” aired their views more formally and widely. But with the exception of the odd coy literary “anon” and poison-pen letters in block capitals, we knew who said what. So we judged them accordingly, whether as interesting thinkers, misguided fools or spiteful gits.
Then came the internet and, exhilaratingly, everyone could have a say and be outspoken with a chance that the world might agree. Unfortunately, it also became easier to hide, lurk and spit from the safety of darkness. Or to invent any number of imaginary enthusiasts to shower praise on your book or business. That is where we are now: with tweeters and message-boarders pecking one another to death, and Amazon book pages pullulating with deceitful praise from authors or their aunties. Anonymity online is a very mixed blessing.
So The Times (London) report about TripAdvisor was unsurprising. This lucrative US website, where customers review hotels and restaurants worldwide and contribute to their rankings, is outed as rife with fakery. Two thirds of B&B reviews in some areas are considered suspect; dodgy companies offer to post five-star verdicts and The Times’s sting, which advertised such a service, got plenty of offers. Worse — because everyone discounts hype — is the evidence that malicious negative reviews are being sold in order to damage rivals. The law here — so far — is supine, and the site itself claims it is trying to improve. But anyone who uses TripAdvisor to make choices has been warned. Those who never trusted it because of anonymity can only say “What do you expect?”
I joined the sceptics after reading whiney reviews of a holiday hotel we had found friendly and good value. I was sourly amused, only the other week, by drooling five-star verdicts of a York hotel with sealed windows in rooms so airless I had to prop the door open with a shoe all night. Positive reviews are rarely convincing, and in negative ones there is often a virtuously aggrieved tone which makes you positively glad they had a bad time. So I don’t join in. But we sceptics may be a minority and TripAdvisor needed questioning. One remedy should be an absolute veto on anonymity: maybe you need not put your name on the open site if cowering privacy is that important, but it should be given, accurately, to the host, who should be able to contact you.
Easy anonymity for noisy opinions is the curse of the internet age, and if we can’t forbid it we should at least jeer at it. Pitch your scorn somewhere between condemnation of drunk drivers and contempt for filthy litterers. Hiding your identity is not admirable, at least not if you’re going to join arguments. Absolutely fine if your schtick is just posting up inoffensive jokes or videos of baby otters, but if you’ve something harsh to say, own it. Stand up and be counted. Face dissenters bravely. Voltaire’s supposed line “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write” should not apply to the anonymous (at least in a free country). Anyone on Twitter calling themselves “proudbritishwife” or “angrycomrade” without a real name can be shrugged off. Especially in the age of the hostile foreign or political “bot”. And yes, that applies even to whoever is “Wooferendum — barking against Brexit”. Post jolly dog pics all you like, mate, but if it’s serious politics don’t hide under a hound. Actually, if you ever tell an anonymous and carpingly rude tweeter that you won’t respect their arguments till they take the bag off their head, you just get a sententious “I have my reasons to need privacy” with no further explanation. So you push the mute button. Hate me if you like, but tell me who you are! Let’s engage as humans, not bots!
Having this instinctive dislike, and sharing the more widespread horror of online trolls, bullies and Nazis, I searched for defenders of anonymity. Just in case they had a point. There are many: Prince William’s heartfelt remarks in the anti-cyberbullying campaign about it being “really, really dangerous” produced an online backlash. “Not linking to your real identity encourages participation and fosters freedom of imagination and controversial unpopular opinions” says one. Others cite countries where being gay or a dissenter means death or prison, though it is frankly unreasonable to extend this to opinionated onliners here. Some cite responsible journalistic investigations where someone may need to disguise themselves, but these are tightly controlled by the editorial code and by law. Some argue that employees in companies or public utilities should be able safely to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. But history suggests that it is only open, brave whistleblowers who get believed.
One defender’s curious list of those who would suffer if anonymity disappeared includes marijuana growers needing information “without publicly admitting to a federal offence”, online daters and gamers (OK, if you must) or patients seeking advice on an embarrassing disease. But once you join an argument rather than asking a question, it is only decent to stand up. Not just issue muffled shouts from the corridor and run away.