In Plato’s Republic, the Greek philosopher writes of the Ring of Gyges, a magical ring that renders the wearer invisible and thus allows him to perform any action without being discovered. In such a situation, asks Plato, why would the wearer still act morally? Conclusion: morality is only a social construct that evaporates once there is no danger of being made responsible by society for your actions.

Inventing a device to make a person invisible is still some way into the future but we do have a very close approximation of Plato’s thought experiment: the anonymous Internet troll. Like the Ring of Gyges, an anon avatar allows a person to do things without people knowing who did it. The anon avatar's actions do not invite any repercussions for his real self. How then do people perform while wearing this virtual Ring of Gyges?

Mostly not so well (as Plato might feel vindicated to know).

Troll sena

Anonymous profiles, liberated from earthly concerns, very often descend to trolling – the act of provoking people without the intention of adding anything of value to the conversation. Some of this provocation is well within the bounds of what could be considered civil – after all what does or does not add value to a conversation is itself a rather nebulously defined concept.

Beyond a point, however, trolling turns to “flaming” – involving comments which are insulting, abusive, laced with profanity and even contain threats of violence. On Indian Twitter, this is an all too common experience.

Last week, a journalist, Swati Chaturvedi, filed a first information report with the police against the Twitter account “Lutyen Insider” after a series of vulgar tweets about her and Congress party vice president Rahul Gandhi. Online abuse against women in India is common, ranging from threats of rape and assault to, somewhat more confusingly, insinuating that some women have spirited away their husbands from the public.

The anonymity of the internet can have even worse repercussions given that now rumours – the lifeblood of communal violence in India – can spread with rare speed electronically. In the previous month, for example, a rather harmless incident of "rail roko" (stopping the trains as a mark of protest) in the Shamli district of Uttar Pradesh was twisted by online rumours into an incident akin to the 2002 train fire in Godhra. The hashtag #GodhraAgain trended for quite some time on Twitter but thankfully didn’t lead to violence on the ground.

In Pune, last June, though, things didn’t turn out quite so well. Derogatory pictures of Shivaji and Bal Thackeray circulated though Facebook and WhatsApp, causing an angry mob to beat to death a young Muslim man simple because he happened to be Muslim. The source of the images is still to be found although yet another wave of rumour mongering spread though the city, as a photograph of one Nikhil Tikone was distributed claiming he was “Nihal Khan” and responsible for the derogatory pictures.

Clearly then, the anonymity of the internet is troublesome, driven by what has been wonderfully called the “online disinhibition effect”.

History of anonymity

Writing anonymously, though, isn’t exactly something new. Voltaire has written under an assumed name, as has Benjamin Franklin and Malthus’ treatise on population was first published under the pseudonym “Joseph Johnson”.

The repercussions of anonymity are not new either. In 1927, a pamphlet named Rangeela Rasool rocked Lahore. It was an anonymously written work which slandered the Prophet Mohammad and caused widespread communal violence in the Punjab of the time.

Writing anonymously might not be unprecedented but its scale in the age of the Internet is. Given the controlled gateways – in this case the publisher – and effort required to write a book, anonymous writers were few and, barring the odd Rangeela Rasool, were mostly serious people who had good reason to want to hide their identity.

Indian social media

In the age of the Internet though, there are no controlled gateways – anyone can sign up for a Twitter account – and it takes no effort. Twitter is, therefore, flooded with fake names, taking advantage of this golden age for anonymity. In fact, anonymous Twitter accounts play a major role in pushing India’s rather vibrant Twitter culture. The Twitter handle @GabbbarSingh (which, disappointingly, isn’t a parody Gabbar Singh account) has more than twice the number of followers the “Office of Rahul Gandhi” has. A remarkable fact given that the account was created as a “happy accident”, illustrating the democratising effects of social media.

While in absolute terms, Twitter might have a very small number of Indians on it – it has only 2.2 crore users or less than 2% of India’s population – it is nothing to sneeze at as a influencer of public opinion.

From the 2014 Modi campaign to Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeting on Sunday to clarify her stand on helping Lalit Modi, social media seems to be at the heart of the public discourse in India. It now plays a major role in policy debates – a role that was once upon a time limited to crusty newspapers.

Social media has widened the base of people commentating and participating in India’s public debates. And while this widening is often overestimated, as those Twitter numbers shows, it is still a significant change from the way things once were.

How crucial is anonymity to social media?

So while social media is great and that’s something everyone agrees on but do we need to have anonymous accounts on it? Anything than can be said could be said under your own name, right?

Not really.

In an age where you entire online history is a Google search away, anonymity plays a crucial role in insulating your real life from opinions which might not always be quite popular. These of course might range from downright bigotry to, say, supporting gay marriage in a society where this sort of thing isn’t all that welcome. Separating “good” minority opinion from “bad” minority opinion is obviously impossible; so we must allow all minority opinion to thrive and anonymity does a great job of facilitating that.

Anyway, as the Lutyens Insider episode shows, anonymous speech is hardly insulated from criminality. Twitter itself has taken steps to reduce abuse without doing away with anonymous accounts: in March, for example, it brought in a phone number verification step for people signing up. This would hopefully dissuade people from being abusive and, should the need arise, help identify people (though some people think even this mild move fatally compromises Twitter anonymity).

The India Twitter handle @ROFLGandhi, a political satire account, for example, thinks that not disclosing his name is important to him being able to tweet what he wants. His real identity being leaked has resulted in unpleasant experiences such as rumours around him molesting someone in his office or even committing fraud.

This connection between freedom of speech and anonymity is a widely accepted principle across the world now. The American Civil Liberties Union thinks that “encryption and anonymity are modern safeguards for free expression” while Human Rights Watch argues that “the ability to speak anonymously” is crucial for “human rights defenders, journalists, and vulnerable minority groups”. Twitter itself has a firm pro-anonymity policy, crucial to its roles in movements such as the Arab Spring.

A tragic example of the need for anonymity online in India comes from only a week back in Uttar Pradesh. Jagendra Singh was burnt alive allegedly by Uttar Pradesh Minister Ram Murti Singh Verma, for posting messages on Facebook against the minister regarding his alleged involvement in illegal mining and land grabbing.

Jagendra Singh did not use a pseudonym and it was easy to track him down. But maybe the next time a local journalist in Uttar Pradesh would need to speak truth to power, online, he would be better off doing it anonymously.