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Updated: 2018.9.27 05:17
 
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Threading on the Fringes of Civility
[ Issue 161 Page 7 ] Wednesday, April 11, 2018, 14:47:52 Simeneh S. Gulelat Staff Reporter simeneh@kaist.ac.kr

What Does “KAIST Confessions” Bring to the Table?

Online anonymity is a tricky subject to study. It trails the fine line between the right for unabated freedom of speech and the need for censorship. Recently, some foreign students have taken to “KAIST Confessions”, a new Facebook page for posting anonymous comments from students, to verbalize the conditions they see ill-fit. But it is not certain how beneficial the new page will prove to be for the international community.

Online anonymity has always been a double-edged sword. In the age of the internet, online dialogue provides a channel for some people to effectively communicate and discuss their thoughts, personal problems, and vexations with strangers near and far. Who knows how many people have received life-changing guidance via some fruitful advice from anonymous friends online? But where there’s good, there’s also bad. Behind the thinly drawn veil of online anonymity lurks a foul beast, the kind that manifests itself in a reprisal of psychotic behavior that often includes foul language, hate speech, and personal attacks.

Psychologist John Suler, who has written on the behaviour of people online, has described the “online disinhibition effect”. The theory goes that the moment you strip yourself of your identity, the usual constraints on your behavior disappear as well. When individuals are bereft of their empathy — and, online anonymity makes sure of that — they distance themselves from any dialogue that is sure to bring proper resolution. Well, how do people who lack empathy act like? Exactly like how anonymous strangers who bark at each other on internet forums do. For example, in real life, it’s very hard to call someone names even when you feel angry after a conversation goes sour. Despite how much you seem to disagree with the other person, the flow of emotional responses in a heart-to-heart inhibits you from saying the wrong things. But put a screen between you and your quarreler after giving yourselves some randomized alphanumeric usernames and watch the nature of your conversation take a turn for the worse at the slightest mismatch of ideas. This is why everyone appears to be a rabid sociopath on the internet and a good-natured social butterfly in real life. Some people choose to be anonymous online when they feel threatened about voicing their possibly unorthodox opinions on politics, gender, race, religion, and whatnot in real-life. But alas, the same people who choose to hide behind anonymity rarely have anything useful to say and simply want to let off some steam about their frustrations in an ugly and crass manner. Healthy social dialogue is only possible when one is in a position to not just throw ideas out there, but also receive any potential blowback of whatever rhetoric they push out into the world. If not, complete anonymity is simply the anathema to civil discourse and a lure for chaos in the cyber pandemonium that is internet forums.

Some recent happenings have taken shape within the KAIST international community in the contexts of online speech and expression. Anonymous forums are nothing new to KAIST students. But a new episode of online dialogue has broken out amongst members of the KAIST international community on Facebook. The creators (admins) of the page claim that they wanted to bring the trend of free expression they saw on the anonymous facebook pages of other universities such as MIT. KAIST Confessions stands to show that channels meant for venting off personal problems and frustrations end up being clogged with rhetoric full of twisted motifs such as aggression and, yes, hate speech. Posts attacking certain cultures and ethnicities prove especially bad for KAIST as it will lead to a lack of trust between international students. In such a case, censorship might be a necessary evil.

What KAIST Confessions means to the international community of KAIST is not certain at the moment. If the forum is allowed to grow and mature with an atmosphere of ethics and constructive criticism, it may be a healthy way for KAISTians of foreign origin to communicate their thoughts and worries, and the international community at KAIST will benefit greatly from such a platform. Moreover, one would assume that KAIST, being the global higher learning institute that it is, will defend the right to freedom of speech for all its constituents.

However, recent experiences remind us that very few of these “confessors” on KAIST Confessions are interested in anything beyond voicing some minor nuisances about their lives at KAIST, be it classes or dorm life, using some very colorful and asinine language. I can safely attest that most, if not all, of the posts on the Facebook page so far have either been idiotic rants written specifically for shock value or unabashed personal attacks on certain students or professors. Admittedly, a select few of the tirades from some anonymous KAISTians have resonated with me — and I imagine most other internationals — by being candid and indicative of the plight of international students at KAIST. However, I also believe that those comments that are worthy of consideration need not have been made anonymously. What do anonymous posters hide from, if not the responsibility of answering for the things they say?

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