“For Those Who Don’t Want To Believe”

I feel uncomfortably like a prophet. In January, and again last week, I wrote about the prospect of UAVs used as weapons by terrorists; yesterday a man was arrested who “planned to attack the Pentagon using ‘small drone airplanes’ filled with explosives and guided by GPS.” In August I wrote about omnipresent mobile phones turning the world into a panopticon; today’s NYT has an article about ordinary Koreans paid by the government to snitch on scofflaws with photo evidence. Last year I wrote a piece for The Walrus about the crucial importance of online pseudonymity for bloggers reporting on the Mexican drug war, now that the traditional media there has been terrified into utter silence; yesterday the headless corpse of one such journalist, a woman named Marisol Macias Castaneda, was found next to a scrawled message warning people not to write about the drug cartels on social media sites.

These are not three separate subjects. Cheap and/or ubiquitous cameras and facial recognition make surveillance ever more omnipresent; the dangers and uncertainties of other new technologies, like hobbyist UAVs, lead to calls for even greater scrutiny; and eventually online anonymity/pseudonymity will be the only kind there is. That isn’t entirely a bad thing. It’s because of crowdsourced surveillance that New York police lieutenant Anthony Bologna faces two investigations after apparently gratuitously pepper-spraying protestors. But it means the ability to remain pseudonymous online will only become more and more important in the years to come.

Do the services that connect people online seem to realize this? Sadly, the answer mostly ranges between “No” and “Hell, no.” Twitter is the only major social network that doesn’t have a real-names policy, and the only one with a history of going to bat for its users’ privacy. But while the online journalists in Mexico who dare to report on its brutal drug wars are beheaded after their real identities are connected to their online bylines, while Syrians are detained and interrogated because of their Facebook accounts, Vic Gundotra has idiotically compared Google Plus’s real-name policy to “wearing a shirt to a restaurant,” and both Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg’s sister Randi have called for real identities to be attached to all online activity.

There’s really not much one can do about that level of monstrous cluelessness. There are downsides to online pseudonymity, yes, but those are massively outweighed by the advantages. Unfortunately, the kind of people who head major online services live such incredibly cosseted existences that most of them seem basically incapable of understanding — or caring — that “even though you have nothing to hide and live your life like an open book, pseudonyms are really important to people who do not lead the cozy existence that you do,” to quote legendary hacker Jamie Zawinski. (To say nothing of the fact that defining what a real name even is is a whole lot more challenging than most Westerners appreciate.)

So I’m not hopeful that Google Plus’s Gundotra or Bradley Horowitz, much less Facebook’s Zuckerberg and Sandberg, will see the light and change their policies anytime soon. And that’s bad news for everyone. True, nobody has to use either service, but it’s incredibly disingenuous to claim that they aren’t increasingly important. Social media are how people organize into movements, these days, and they’re how both truth and falsehood spread when the traditional media fail. The sign next to Castaneda’s headless body was addressed, “For Those Who Don’t Want To Believe.” That’s a pretty good description of anyone who thinks that online pseudonymity is no big deal.

Image credit: “liryon”, Flickr