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Should anonymity be guaranteed as a right of the students on university online forums?
[ Issue 127 Page 11 ] Saturday, December 28, 2013, 16:22:34 Geunhong Park, Jisoo Kim geunhongpiuspark@kaist.ac.kr, kim94eve@gmail.com
Pro: Anonymity Should Not Be Questioned
Some recent postings on ARA and Bamboo Forest, KAIST’s two main online forums, raised concern over the abuse of online anonymity as a student’s personal information got exposed with malicious intentions. Although such leaks generally do not happen very often, the few times it does generate some much needed alarm. Usually, the blame goes to the forum users who undoubtedly abused their anonymous status to slander and defame an individual. However, it would be a hasty decision to lay the culpability on anonymity when the actual problem goes much deeper than that. Online anonymity has been and should always be a given. Likewise, students should have the right to online anonymity in school forums.
Freedom of speech is a basic human right, and this should, without a doubt, also be preserved in school forums. It is everyone’s right to be anonymous on the Internet. However, it is up to each individual to not abuse that right and use it responsibly. On that note, it should be reckoned that what is done with the protection of anonymity aligns with the individual’s sense of integrity and level of awareness of “netiquette,” the commonly accepted rules of behavior on the Internet. Furthermore, the education an individual receives concerning the consequences of certain actions on the Internet, as well as ethics, plays a part in what the individual does with the power of anonymity. The validity of the right of anonymity as a given right, of students’ on online forums should not be in question. Instead, attention should be narrowed towards those few individuals who chose to abuse their right with a few strokes of the keyboard.
Beyond the very fact that anonymity online is a given, the anonymous nature of school- forums in particular has positive advantages in terms of school spirit and unity. On these platforms, students are able to engage in discussions and share grievances. Because they do so under the protection of anonymity, students can communicate in an honest way about controversial topics or sensitive issues without the fear of judgment. In short, these forums create a haven for pent-up feelings to be released, which is healthy for the school’s atmosphere. Also, anonymity strengthen the school’s sense of community as students are able to find other students who hold similar opinions. Even when opinions clash, healthy debates can spur participation of members within the community. The paradox of openness is that it works best under the cover of anonymity. Taking away the right to online anonymity will destroy what is now the strongest suit of school forums.
Denying students the right of anonymity on school forums does not guarantee that similar issues of defamation will not occur again. For example, Bamboo Forest has a “no membership cancellation policy so that no members can leak personal information or upload a slanderous post then cancel their membership and “disappear,” so to speak. Despite such precautions in place, such posts still occur from time to time. Having now acknowledged that anonymity is not the problem, a different solution should be considered. A basic solution is careful monitoring of the forums. Confession Pages, which are school-specific Facebook pages popular in the United States, have two moderators in place: the creator of the page and Facebook itself. With all anonymous submissions to the page automatically filtered through the moderator before being posted and Facebook’s official position on prohibiting offensive or potentially dangerous content, these Confession Pages seem to have a secure system. Although this kind of arrangement may bring more issues onto the table, a similar system in which careful moderating takes place is should be sought after. Taking away the students’ right to be anonymous on school forums is an unthinkable solution, but a betting monitoring system is definitely a sensible direction to be thinking towards.
When unsavory actions take place on the Internet, the natural reaction is to blame the anonymous nature of the persecutors. However, even if being anonymous made it easier for them to decide to do what they did, denying everyone – or in this case, students on school forums – the right to be anonymous only scratches at the surface of the problem. Bigger challenges such as recognizing and eliminating the root of the problem should be in question while students retain their fundamental right to anonymity for the betterment of the community.
Con: Accountability over Anonymity
The recent controversy over a senior student (or according to some sources, student“s”) who allegedly left on a holiday to Europe while making other people take attendance for her seems to have wound down after barely a week or so. After an ARA post by an acquaintance on the person’s Facebook status (allegedly thanking her “proxy attendance fairies” for their services), the frenzy of vengeful investigative activity on KAIST’s online forums finally culminated in email petitions to President Kang and to the student’s Head of Department. For now, further investigation seems to have led to the conclusion that there was no attendance related fraud, and the student simply was absent for the classes while on her trip.
Yet, despite the briefness of the event itself, the controversy resulting from it has had overreaching effects online. More so than ARA, Bamboo Forest - KAIST’s most popular anonymous online forum - was abuzz with rumors concerning the student’s identity, actions, social network services posts, and other personal details. The interest shown in the person - according to one commenter on the online forum - extended “well beyond the limits of exacting social justice,” with slander concerning not just her actions but also her appearance and day-to-day conduct very much in evidence. This was so much that the Bamboo Forest management team finally put its foot down on posts “mentioning specific individuals, which will be removed without notice.” Yet posts that fit this bill (about the “proxy attendance girl”) continued to appear throughout the next few days. It comes as only a relief that the incident seems to have been resolved satisfactorily enough for most students.
This reporter is not going to issue any judgment on how severe the transgression in question was, or how it should have been punished. Even the matter of whether the issue should have been discussed at all in public forums is relatively ambiguous territory, as is online anonymity which in itself is desirable and necessary in some occasions. For example, discussion groups among victims of drug abuse or those affected by depression frequently operate on such a basis precisely because the people simply are uncomfortable with using their names. Yet the progress of the “proxy attendance girl” scandal makes it plain that anonymous communities discussing issues in as small a society as KAIST are bound to hold negative consequences.
Such behavior that fleetingly appeared seems eerily similar to what prompted the removal of ARA’s notorious anonymous discussion board. Over a year ago, a single student (who was despicably smeared as the “plastic surgery ogre girl”) was subjected to disparagement, relating to her appearance and personal life by people who barely knew her, in a matter which may have ended up in court. It was only through official investigation that the victim was able to track down her tormentors and make them be responsible for their comments. This - in addition to other issues with hate speech regarding regional discrimination, sexism, et cetera - finally led to the closure of KAIST’s only anonymous forum until other websites such as Bamboo Forest took up the baton. It was indicative of what issues may arise in any anonymous online environment, and the current incident certainly shows that it may happen again.
In fact, looking at Bamboo Forest right now, it is hard to rid oneself of the impression that many people are more than willing to unleash their vitriol on anyone or anything that seems easy enough to pick on: specific clubs, particular regions, women, and store owners. Even in larger web communities the ability to hide behind a fake identity makes it easier for one to adopt extreme right, left, sexist, racist, or any other personalities online with no fear of responsibility or retribution. This becomes especially true in a small environment such as KAIST, where practically everyone is connected in some form or another across one or two relationships, and has access to the public forum in question. The danger of an anonymous online community in a small society lies with the speed at which libel propagates and the personal nature (i.e. insults aimed at particular individuals or a group of individuals) of these comments.
Responsibility comes with a real identity and vice versa. One is able to understand why the larger KAIST public is not readily accessing anonymous groups such as Bamboo Forest; at times, the ingrown group mentality of offensive anonymous comments and insensitivity amounts almost to indecency. Having to write one’s name on a comment means one has to think about what one is writing and lend some substance to potentially contentious arguments. Accountability and responsibility is a must in everyday social life, and it should be the same in a virtual environment.


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