The advent of the digital age has spawned numerous online messaging boards that allow users to remain virtually anonymous.
Platforms like 4Chan and 8Chan allow malicious individuals to spread misinformation, conspiracy theories, and more recently higher levels of racism and white supremacy online without consequences. Worst of all, it has allowed these individuals to mobilize in the real world to commit acts of terror, violence, murder, etc.
Many reports detail how mass shooters became radicalized after communicating with anti-Semitists, white supremacists, and other conspiracy theorists on these platforms.
Over the past decade, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of mass shootings and general gun violence across the country. In the past month alone, we’ve seen horrifying mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas – the latter eerily reminiscent of mass shootings like the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings.
It is ridiculous that individuals are allowed to remain anonymous online and face no consequences for radicalizing others to acts of violence. The person who brutally murdered 10 innocent victims at a Buffalo grocery store on May 14 listed the reasons for joining 4Chan in her 180-page manifesto, with the main reason being that she was bored.
How disgusting. Even though he didn’t think that joining the platform would result in his ultimate murderous deeds, he wrote those words in the manifesto as the driving force behind it.
I just don’t understand why we still allow these platforms to extend anonymity to anyone with a computer. That’s not how reality works.
In the real world, you have a name, you have multiple forms of identification, and you have a reputation and social pressures that keep you from saying what you want to say.
The right to freedom of expression is not absolute. The Supreme Court ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) that the government can prohibit “inflammatory” language “designed to incite or induce an imminent lawless act” and “likely to induce or induce such an act”.
Even speech that is not necessarily prohibited by the government is often subject to interpersonal scrutiny and other societal pressures, depending on the content of the speech.
Speeches and messages often circulated through these platforms can even reach misinformed, clumsy officials who cannot tell the difference. After the Uvalde, Texas shooting that killed 19 children and two adults, Arizona Representative Paul Gosar was quick to shift the blame.
In a tweet that Gosar has since deleted, he misidentified the shooter as transgender and an immigrant with no permanent legal status. He also misspelled the shooter’s name in the tweet.
Wrong on all counts, Congressman.
It is clear that something has to change in the online world. How do we allow misinformation to spread to our representatives in government? At the very least, Gosar understands that tweeting this misinformation may have had consequences, as he deleted the tweet soon after realizing his oversight.
Some form of digital identification must be implemented for verification. This should contain similar details and information as a driver’s license or other government-issued identification document. Other online platforms might even integrate this into their account databases to make account management more auditable and secure.
Without verifying who is posting certain words on the internet, we have no idea of the person’s validity, intent, and other characteristics. These are all things that are necessary in the real world – why not in the digital world?
Sean Gilley (he/him) is a senior studying Politics and Economics with a degree in Computer Science.