A Lesson from Gyges’ Ring: The Internet, Anonymity, and Evil

If there is one thing, more than any other, that the internet has effectively undermined with absolute aplomb it is accountability.  It goes without saying, of course, that one of the most formidable advantages of the internet is that it brings information at the finger tips of everyone who has access to it.  Sitting in one part of the world, one can in fact learn mountains of information about an entirely different part of the world.  With persistence and diligence, one can become informed about just about anything one’s heart desires.  One can access information from every corner of the globe.  This is it what makes the internet so amazingly wonderful.

The problem, though, is this.  What exactly counts as information?  The answer, surely, is not anything that one reads.  And there is the rub.  Anyone, anywhere, can put up a most respectable looking website that rivals, in appearance, the website of such distinguished newspapers as Le Monde or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.  One consequence of this is that, thanks to the internet, the distinction between fact and fiction—that is, non-fact—is being effectively obliterated. And this is having an exceedingly deleterious impact upon society.

The distinction between fact and non-fact is key to the very survival of humanity.  There is, to be sure, room for a measure of vagueness and uncertainty in this regard.  What there is not room for, however, is for the very distinction itself to be obliterated.

The distinction between fact and non-fact has served as a fundamental corrective in the course of human progress as we have revised one view after another in the light of new facts that were ascertained.

Here are two simple and incontrovertible examples.  The view that most of us nowadays have about women and various ethnic/racial groups differs substantially from what people thought a 1000 years ago.  And precisely what we take to be the case is that our present views about women and ethnic/racial groups are much more in line with the facts.  That is precisely why we take ourselves to have made great strides in social progress.

But what are facts?  Nowadays, that is precisely what is at issue.  And it would seem as if just about any assessment or claim made about social matters offered as a fact by some can be dismissed as merely that person’s opinion.  And all it takes to legitimate this is a very professional looking webpage countering the assessment or claim made.

One of the distinguishing features between human beings and non-human animals is that human beings have an enormous capacity for self-deception.  My favorite example of this is the case of, for instance, Opidopo being madly love with Jamilla and thinking that she is madly loves him, though everybody else knows and takes it to be obvious that she is masterfully playing him.  Animals do not have this problem.

Again, if a lion or elephant loses a battle to, respectively, another lion or elephant, the loser does not go around self-proclaiming that he is still the “better” beast because it is only owing to some inexplicable fluke that he lost the battle, contrary to what all observations with the naked eye would suggest.  But a human being can do just that: explain “away” a defeat.

Given the capacity that human beings have for self-deception, there is then one respect in which the internet is an enormous liability notwithstanding the numerous respects in which it is an incredible asset.

Not only is it possible to put up a most professional and legitimate looking website that defends just about any conceivable view, people can in their anonymous postings to the site support what has been said using the most ludicrous considerations imaginable.  In a way heretofore unimaginable, the internet has made it possible for people from the four corners of the globe to rally together in support of absolutely ludicrous claims.

Thanks to the internet, there is a very real sense in which people no longer re-examine their views in the wake of the facts.  Rather, they simply ignore the facts via a kind of internet collective screaming, if you will.

Pain, deep hostilities, and deep needs are among the emotional states that constitute fertile soil for self-deception.  The internet has made it possible for people to wallow in and reinforce the self-deception occasioned by these negative emotional states.

To be sure, there is virtually nothing equal to the internet if in fact a person actually wishes to be informed about matters.  But to come to the internet in the hopes of finding out what is in fact the case is a very different posture from that of coming to the internet in order to affirm what one already believes, no matter how preposterous one’s beliefs are.  And my point is that the internet lends itself masterfully to doing the latter: to affirming, that is, what one already believes.

Of course, there is nothing new with people holding preposterous beliefs.  I am hardly claiming that the internet ushered in prejudiced.  Obviously it did not.  My claim is simply that the internet has facilitated in an extraordinary and most unanticipated way the furthering of prejudice.  People who would not think of reading a book will spend hours surfing the internet and reinforcing their views.  And this they can do in near complete anonymity.

It is the ubiquitous access and the near complete anonymity that sets the internet apart from other outlets that provide information.  There is no better facilitator of evil deeds than anonymity.

This last point is particularly poignant.  As everyone knows, just about every beneficial thing can be put to a malicious use: a book can be used to hurt someone; plastic can be used to suffocate a person; food can serve as a vehicle for poisoning.  And so on.  By its very nature, however, anonymity facilitates evil.  It in this respect that the internet can serve as a facilitator of evil in a way that nearly all beneficial things in society cannot.

Nothing aids and abets evil like anonymity.  This, you will recall, was the point of the story of Gyges’ ring in Plato’s Republic.  Anonymity general removes all considerations of self-restraint precisely because it undermines accountability.  It allows evil to indulge itself.

Like just about everyone else who uses it, I love the internet; and it is increasingly impossible to imagine life without it.  There is no gainsaying the good to which it gives arise.  Alas, it is also the case that there is no gainsaying the fact that, owing to the anonymity it provides, the internet aids and abets evil far beyond anything that anyone would ever have imagined.  This, in turn, requires a vigilance that no one would ever have anticipated and the absence of such vigilance may prove to be utterly inimical to the hope of a better world.

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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