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Could what you don’t know hurt you?

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We live in the Information Age, an era that thrives on the freedom of knowledge, the freedom to be as we are without fear of judgment, and the ability to share as much or as little of ourselves as we please, but this system cannot operate without the proper platform. Fortunately, the internet is exactly that. In an entirely virtual environment, we play by our own rules; we wear whatever face we want–or no face at all–, and we circulate information at a pace so rapid as to run circles around printed materials. Among those who have eagerly embraced the onslaught of news, communication and globalization, however, are dissenters who argue that the internet brings with it an unprecedented danger in the form of anonymity.

With internet horror stories incessantly battling for our attention on the news and social media, there may be some merit to the idea of the online world being a frightening medium for crime and immoral activity. It is, after all, a place meant to transcend physical limitations, and this allows people from any number of questionable backgrounds to connect with, say, a nine-year-old who has accessed his mother’s desktop during her day shift. Such a possibility is frightening–of that, there is no doubt–but to attribute the risk to anonymity or the internet itself is a misplacement of blame and a refusal to accept responsibility for one’s own negligence. Creators have given us innumerable tools to secure our personal computers, and one’s failure to employ them is a failure of the individual, not of the platform itself.

It is another common concern that anonymous social media networks open doors to cyberbullying, a seemingly easy way to get inside someone’s head without facing the repercussions. What many people do not realize is that true anonymity does not exist. People well-versed in cybersecurity and networking are capable of disguising and hiding their online activity to near perfection, but they can never disappear. Furthermore, most “cyberbullies” are not tech experts, and are, as a result, much easier to trace, but punishing the offending parties is not the main goal anyway, preventing and ending the problem is. If a young person is facing cyberbullying, there are many options available to them including blocking users, deleting the problematic social media account and even going offline. The struggle is not brought about by a lack of preventative measures, but often by the victim’s desire to know what others are saying about him or her, regardless of the toll it takes on their mental state.

While so many of us see it as an opponent to safety, the truth about online anonymity is that it is only dangerous if we allow it to be. It provides a secure environment for people around the world to seek help and to inform the public of governmental or organizational misconduct, it allows people the chance to be themselves when the physical world does not and it can even help our communities by creating more opportunities for anonymous tips that may shed some light on tough investigative cases. If not for the ability given to us by the internet to release information without disclosing our identities, many of the whistleblowers of today would be unable to tell their stories for fear of imprisonment or death. If the proper care is taken to protect oneself, anonymity is a liberty, not a thing to be feared. Irish writer Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

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