The question of internet anonymity

The question of internet anonymity

Like any democratic society, freedom of expression is a staple of our country. Protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 2(b) ensures Canadians have: freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.

The internet has provided a soapbox for those seeking to share their thoughts. Social media platforms disseminate a never-ending stream of theories, complaints and accusations, both false and based in truth. The internet also allows people to express themselves while keeping their identity private. But anonymity is a double-edged sword. While online obscurity permits much freer communication for those who fear embarrassment, ostracism, or persecution, it can also provide a shield for libel. Unfounded claims can come from competitors or disgruntled clients, causing serious damage to your reputation and even financial loss.

The debate, then, becomes how to guard the innocent while protecting free speech.

The advent of fake news

Author Sarah Churchwell asserts that Woodrow Wilson popularized the phrase 'fake news' in 1915. No matter its origin, the phenomenon of conspiracy theories and fake news has blurred the line between fact and fiction. It leaves in its wake skepticism, doubt and a potentially dangerous lack of insight and understanding as we have witnessed during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Pew Research Center (PRC), a "nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world," reported that BBC Future Now interviewed a panel of 50 experts who pointed to a breakdown of trusted information sources as among the utmost challenges facing society in the 21st century

"The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth," said Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, who was quoted in the PRC report. "Truth is no longer dictated by authorities but is networked by peers. For every fact, there is a counter fact, and all these counter facts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people."

survey by PRC following the 2016 U.S. election found that 64 percent of adults believe fake news stories cause "a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events." Twenty-three percent admitted they had shared fabricated political stories, either by mistake or sometimes intentionally.

Researchers have found that the young, elderly, and those with less education can be most influenced by fake news. As well, people in the political extremes are more inclined to believe a false story if it aligns with their own beliefs or bias.

According to a disturbing report published by Stanford Engineering, "artificial intelligence will turbocharge fake news in the years ahead," making it easier to target people likely to accept and spread the information.

The invisible enemy

Fake personas

Many web platforms provide the tools for the deceitful to create identities that allow them to hide in the shadows. Once cloaked by a spurious persona, it is possible to create emails that can be used to harass or intimidate someone.

A recent New York Times Magazine story chronicled a couple's torment after a false claim of sexual harassment. A professor was shortlisted for a job opening at another university and had hoped the institution could also find her wife a spousal-hire job. As preparations were being made for the hire, a sexual harassment complaint was filed against the professor's wife, and the process was suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

The couple suspected an acquaintance, who was also in line for the position, had filed the complaint using a fake name to derail a potential offer. 

Pseudonyms

Creating a new identity isn't always necessary. Some chat rooms permit people to post complaints and criticisms using a simple and unverified pseudonym. The damage to reputation that can be caused is obvious and can result in a victim going to great lengths and expense to clear their name.

Misunderstandings

Even those who post a critique using their real identity can cause embarrassment and a potential loss of clients even though the critique may be baseless. For example, a man went on a consumer forum to complain about his legal bill after being represented in a court case. He claimed he was only in court for two hours and charged thousands of dollars yet failed to get the desired outcome. The complaint neglects to take into account the hours his counsel spent preparing for the case and mentions only the court time. The lawyer knows how much work went into the matter, yet prospective clients reading the forum may not understand that the bill was entirely justified and may well decide to seek help elsewhere. 

Search marketing attacks

Anonymous attacks come in many forms, including negative SEO, which is used to lower a competitor's website rankings to elevate the perpetrator's standing. Simply put, it is any malicious attempt taken against your site that ends up harming your rankings.

For example, one of our clients had their website of more than 1,000 pages duplicated and hosted on a server in Ukraine where few could request it removed. The attack was designed to trick Google into penalizing the website for what is known as black hat SEO, breaking the search engine guidelines and placing the original website into the line of fire for a ranking penalty. We were successful at mitigating the situation and got the website back on track, but it's another case of the harm done by those lurking in the internet shadows. 


At ICONA, we have a team of web professionals, designers, writers and content creators who know what it takes to make law firms stand out from the crowd. If you have any questions about content creation, please do get in touch. We are here to help.