In 2010 the Iranian election protests — the “Green Revolution” — was at its tail end, though few knew the tumult of the Arab Spring was to come. The Iranian authorities were rounding up key anti-government leaders. People who had spoken out against the election result, which appeared to the whole world to have been rigged, found themselves in grave danger.
The things they had posted on social media – often under their real names as Facebook insisted – in support of the protests, were now incriminating evidence. More importantly, they feared Iranian Police were meticulously working through entire social graphs, containing real family and friends, to throw people in prison. If you were a protester, it was likely your Facebook friends might be as well. So many started frantically deleting their accounts. Suddenly, anonymity was a prized possession.
Fast forward to 2014. Startups producing apps which seemingly give us anonymity in our postings – Yik Yak, Secret, Wut and Whisper being the major contenders right now – are suddenly hot properties. But not because of any political process, but because their juicy gossip – especially of the Silicon Valley variety – has become addictive, not least to the media.
But, with social media comes the inevitable trolling, and potential for defamation. Clearly, with their identity protected, users of apps based around anonymity are able to circulate salacious and downright damaging rumours. Some people are even resigning, in part because of what is said on these apps.
It’s not a pretty place. And it’s even worse when apps like Secret suggest that those posting the defamation are from within your own contact book.
It’s led Secret to even warn users not to use the platform for defamation.
And now it’s leading some investors – including Netscape founder Marc Andreessen – to wonder out loud if it’s even something that they should be investing in, especially if the app in question is “designed to encourage negative behaviour.” Sure, it’s not just business – ethical and moral issues are at stake – but then again bad PR, sensitive LPs and damage to a VC’s brand are big factors.
It’s not something we haven’t faced before. Anonymously run accounts on both Facebook and Twitter can act like these anonymous apps and are even easier to create and distribute. But although Facebook and Twitter are now old hands at moderation, plenty of bad stuff still gets through.
But it is outside the US – far away from the moderators and the potential PR flare-ups – that anonymity has become a huge issue.
For while we wring our hands over something nasty posted on Secret about someone in Silicon Valley, different legal jurisdictions mean full-blown libel actions are probably going to kick off as these apps start hitting other shores in larger numbers.
Take the UK, a place so filled with libel actions it’s even become known as the home of so-called Libel Tourism.
This is a tricky part of the world for people who want to be free and easy on Twitter, Facebook, or any other kind of social media, anonymous or not. In the UK, Police cases involving social media have skyrocketed in the last two years, just as an example.
And UK law is very interested in the concept of ‘identification’ – how someone might be identified whether their name is used or not. The question any judge will ask in assessing a case is, could this person be put ‘in the room’ and therefore be identified?
For instance: Say a person posted something nasty on Secret about someone else. That ‘someone else’ is identified as working at a particular company. Another person posts something nasty, again, about the same person. This time they don’t mention the company name, they simply imply it, but add that this person is a manager in a named department. Another, third, person posts other potentially identifying information and adds a gender for the ‘target.’
Thus, through that “triangulation”, any person working inside that department at that company would be able to name the target involved, even though the target had not actually been named by any single Secret user.
It’s this information the targeted person could take to a UK court of law, claim defamation and mount a legal action to either acquire the names of the people on the network who had defamed them, or level charges at the most likely suspects.
Secret itself is not yet available on the app store in the UK. But when it is a whole can of worms could be unleashed.
But enough of our Western issues. It’s in emerging markets like the Arab world, where anonymous apps may find a fascinating foothold.
The first example is of course in different cultures. For instance, prevented from communicating directly very easily, many single Arab men and women go to great lengths to communicate digitally. The stories of people throwing papers with their phone numbers into each other’s moving cars are just the oldest examples.
But with anonymous apps comes a greater opportunity to flirt and – no doubt – dish the dirt – in a safe, anonymous way.
And there is another, fascinating path for anonymous apps to take. The Arab Spring was super-charged when people were emboldened to speak out after seeing their peers post to social media against the various Arab regimes. What anonymous apps now hold out is the possibility of doing the same, but in a way that could well be out of reach of the authorities.
Imagine you are a Secret user in Cairo and someone in your personal contact network starts releasing damning evidence against the ruling Army elite on Secret. You know one of your contacts is almost certainly in possession of the truth. Suddenly, this acts as a verifier of the information, and gradually it seeps out to the public domain.
See what I mean?
And there is already evidence that this new wave of anonymous apps will be used in this way by activists.
Although founder Kevin Abosch, a world-renowned visual artist, created KwikDesk as a conceptual art project, it’s now being used by activists. The Chinese version of KwikDesk, for instance, was launched with the participation of human-rights activist and Tiananmen protest leader, Wu’er Kaixi. Kaixi was one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and is still a wanted man in China.
So, what will future activists do with this brave new world of anonymity apps? Surely there will be some dissing of friends — but there will be plenty of ways in which they can be used to undermine regimes, in a fast, viral, mobile way that other, older, platforms were not able to achieve.
Those Green Revolution activists in Iran may now find a true friend in anonymous apps, where once – for many – Facebook’s insistence on real identity (even though it gave voice to so much of the revolution) proved an enemy to their lives and to the lives of their families.