Anonymity and ask.fm
By ARLANA SHIKONGO
It has become common to scroll past a Facebook post broadcasting just how immensely bored an individual is and encouraging their friends to “Ask me Anything.” Although Ask.fm has been around for quite a few years, it has only recently boomed among youth all over the world who are waiting, full of angst and excitement, for anonymous questions to flood in.
Ask.fm is a social networking website that allows users to ask other users questions, with the option of anonymity. The questions are sent to the user, who can decide whether or not to answer. The questions only become visible to the general public when they have been answered.
I remember a time, not too long ago, when children were discouraged from talking to strangers. As we moved into a more virtual age, social websites such as Facebook set up protective measures for younger users. Facebook states that it has designed many of its features to remind minors of exactly who they are sharing information with and to limit interactions with strangers. For example, Facebook protects sensitive information, such as minors’ contact information, school, and birthday, from appearing in public searches. While Facebook allows older uses to utilize a feature called location sharing, they automatically turned the feature off for minors,. “It’s important for minors in particular to think before they share their location,” the social website explains. However, our entire society is moving away from this fear of the unknown. Social sites are reducing these measures and youth are willingly encouraging anonymous interaction.
The dangers seem nonexistent as we scroll through virtual timelines that have become central to our lives. But the dangers that have concerned parents for years on end are still a reality. Last August, a 14-year old girl took her own life after being bullied online through Ask.fm. This tragedy brought the website under scrutiny from organizations such as the Family Online Safety Institute and the Federal Trade Commission, and Ask.fm was forced to revise its protection policies. The Federal Trade Commission updated its rules on the kind of personal data websites can collect from children online. “These modified rules widen the definition of children’s personal information to include persistent identifiers such as cookies that track a child’s activity online, as well as geolocation information, photos, videos, and audio recordings,” it explained.
The incident has not affected the site’s user base at all, but the company has had to make changes internally to satisfy the concerns that were put forward, to prevent such behavior and to curb the culture of online bullying. For example, Ask.fm has hired more staff to moderate comments on the site, and has committed to viewing all cases reported within 24 hours of receiving them. The company has also made it easier to report inappropriate behavior by making the Report button more visible and accessible. It also intends to limit the features non-registered users can access in order to encourage people to register. The idea behind this is that it is easier to track a report of abuse to a specific person when they have a registered account. By providing an email address, users allow Ask.fm to capture their IP data—which can be used for tracking. Users can also now opt out of receiving anonymous communications, allowing them to moderate the content they receive.
However, I think that the issue that needs tackling is less a matter of privacy measures or the lack thereof, but rather the existence of anonymity on a platform that already allows individuals to hide behind a façade of pretenses. It is easy to set up any sort of account under a fake name and create a fake identity. This raises the question as to how the idea was stumbled upon, if creating a feature that could further extend one’s anonymity was not a matter of concern.
For the most part, the argument in favor of anonymity is the individual’s right to freedom of speech. Sometimes a career path prohibits an individual from having a Facebook account, and that cripples them from effectively communicating in a world that almost completely revolves around social network sites. This is the case for many high-ranking jobs, especially in the political industry . Many political figures do not have Facebook accounts, and if they do, they operate under an alias. However, even this is a risk as IP addresses can easily be tracked by any amateur who has read a “How To Hack” or “How To Track” article. High school students applying to college are well aware that admission officers can track their digital footprint and will more than graciously appreciate the opportunity to remain anonymous. In essence, there is no wrong in that. The problem, however, stems from the fact that there are ethical consequences to every decision, regardless of how good the intent might be.
Although anonymity might prove beneficial to the freedom of expression, it is important to note that when an issue allows an individual to be protected, they are, more likely than not, going to express something in an offensive manner. In this way, anonymity—and the endorsement of it—enables abusive behavior. These two opposing opinions only create a vicious cycle of good intent being succeeded by bad consequences.
As an avid user of social media websites, including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, and Ask.fm, I can testify that it is troubling to witness the direction in which protection policies are headed. Even as an 18-year old, I am still sometimes frightened by the questions I get on my Ask.fm profile, and I cannot imagine a 15-year old being put under the same scrutiny. My own experience on Ask.fm elicited questions such as, “Don’t you just hate being as black as you are?” or, “Is it true that you’re suicidal?” While I was able to shake them off, such questions are enough to throw any self-loathing person off the edge they were so stoically standing on, waiting for the nudge that would push them over. However, the questions get worse. Between the, “You know being gay means you’re not a human, right?” directed at youth who identify as homosexual, and the, “Even your parents are ashamed to have you as a child,” statements that I’ve seen posted to other users, it becomes easy for the individual reading these to lose hindsight and see only the negativity being raised. There’s just no end game. As much as teenagers like to believe themselves to be more mature than they are, the stage of their mental and social development is simply not in a place that can condone being publicly ridiculed. They are not in a position to be told, “You know everybody hates you,” or, “Have you ever met someone uglier than yourself?” because teenagers seek social acceptance. They are at a stage where a large part of who they are is dependent on what people think of them.
The arguments for the benefits and consequences of anonymity both establish important points;
however, the focus should be taken off the pros and cons of premeditated anonymity. Rather, we should focus on the existence of anonymity in a digital era that already provides a computer screen and an array of names and accounts as a veil behind which the menaces of society can hide.
Knowing the extent to which anonymity can be used to hurt another individual, we should think twice about enforcing and encouraging it so avidly. Although anonymity is beneficial in certain instances, the reality is that it has a more threatening effect on society and this needs to be addressed more cautiously. This is not to say that anonymity should be put off completely, but rather that it should not be so blatant. An alias is the best way to remain anonymous as a name can still be put to a digital face, whereas the form of anonymity that Ask.Fm employs essentially allows a ghost to be a menace.