The enduring pseudanonymity of the internet

A long time ago, in a zeitgeist far away, the internet was a dangerous place full of strangers who couldn’t be trusted.  Since then it’s become an even more dangerous place, full of strange ideas and algorithms that act like medieval ensorcelments, beguilements, and gaeas, entrapping the unwary into strange vistas via machine learning and huge databases of customer information.  Social media has become a place where people are radicalized and turned down dark alleyways that are inhabited by the unpleasant weltanschauung of groups that used to hide.

In part, I think this is due to the pseudo-anonymity that the internet offers.  You can rename yourself freedom eagle dot gov and post conspiracy theories or anti-science screeds, but you’ll probably end up seeing your digital identities collide at some point as you use google to sign in to youtube and comment on a video or a cookie or other tracking software watches you.  This sometimes has disastrous consequences for people’s lives, because once they are outed or docked they can lose their professional reputation, or be sued for damages.

It can be tremendously freeing to have an alternate identity, protect your loved ones, but be your true self in some sense, and I think because this idea is often linked to superheroes, who often had a secret identity, it may even seem brave.  There’s also the reality that, hidden, freed some consequence, people will often be far less circumspect in their views.  This can be a double-edged sword, on the one hand, many young people who are non-cis or non-binary have probably found safe spaces to express and find themself, and instead of experiencing ridicule have experienced compassion and empathy.  At the same time, many bigots and racists have found safe spaces in which to express their hateful views, and found, rather than condemnation for ignorance, support for their unearned grievance and better articulated, but still false arguments about things like “scientific racism”.

It’s a violation of a normal principle, mostly borrowed from statistics, called mean regression.  In most randomly distributed populations, future data points will tend to be more towards the middle than the extremes.  Only we’re not dropping pennies into a bean machine, we’re dropping personalities into society.  Normally, people experience criticism of extreme views in groups.  Most people tend to be non-contradictory and somewhat conforming, and this has been confirmed through experimentation, people, in order to conform, will even agree to things they know to be untrue, simply not to disagree with a group.  I think the internet is in some sense encouraging some of our worst impulses, because rather than joining groups composed of random individuals, who will tend to have an average of views that approximates the societal average, instead you can seek out and find a group that agrees with whatever you believe.  A presidential candidate is a member of a satanic pedophile ring that runs the world and that literally harvests the adrenal gland of terrified children to make a life-enhancing drug?  Not far enough, turns out she’s also a lizard person.  Or there are mole children.  Or the earth is flat.


The sorcerer’s apprentice of youtube algorithms leads people down dark paths because it’s simply keyed to keep people watching to keep driving advertising dollars.  The upshot of this is outrage media and bizarre views being pushed onto people so that they’ll click them.  Headlines now are often ludicrous, and also frequently wrong, or even contradictory to the article they are the headline of.  It’s not difficult to see why: readers will actually click the headline and read if they see something they disagree with or find absurd.

Because of the pseudo-anonymity of the internet, people can make videos and content that radicalizes and appeals to the worst impulse in people, and the shift from the three big news networks who saw the news as part of their civic duty and responsibility of being given the airwaves, to the media saturation 25/8 news cycle that wants to wake you up in the middle of the night with a flashing alert because a politician did an outrageous thing is tremendously detrimental to society.

Now we live in a time where parents tell their children that Freedom Eagle dot Gov says we have to trust in the plan, and that the storm is upon us, and that the mainstream media is corrupt and can’t be trusted.  In every sense, it seems we are living out the Chinese benison/curse “may you live in interesting times.”

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