The Ring of Gyges – The Issue of Anonymity

While channel hopping on the car radio during a recent journey I came across a discussion about the problem of websites publishing allegations against people. Such allegations can often be totally unfounded, defamatory, and grievously injurious to the subject’s good name and standing.
It was suggested that a perceived anonymity led people to act in ways in which they normally wouldn’t. Also, this perceived anonymity led people to mistakenly think that they were free from sanction in posting such comments.
Mention was made of the Ring of Gyges. It was that type of conversation! Apologies to the participants as I didn’t catch their names, or even the station.
In Plato’s Book 2 of the Republic a magical ring, the Ring of Gyges, conferred to its wearer the power to become invisible at will. The mythical tale of the ring of Gyges is described by the character of Glaucon. He asks whether anyone can be so virtuous that they could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act they like if they knew they were invisible and could not be discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice. Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate.
In short, if a person could be invisible and undiscoverable anything goes. If we truly believe no one will ever find out about our evil deed, then we will do it.
It’s certainly a pessimistic view of the human race but is it accurate?
Judging by the standard of comments that appear on many website discussion forums it would appear so, as many of the more derogatory comments are made anonymously or under a pseudonym. Even mainstream “quality” broadsheet newspapers publish anonymous comments on the discussion forums of their websites, offensive comments that would never see the light of day in their printed editions.
The uncharitable, un-Christian, nature of some comments on many websites, including self-proclaimed ‘catholic’ websites, raises the issue of the responsibility of a website hosting such discussions by anonymous authors.
Certainly for a site like our own, the ACP, it is a very pertinent question. We unashamedly proclaim ourselves as catholic. Google analytics show our site attracts a sizable number of visitors each month. We have a responsibility to those visitors to model charitable behaviour when discussing contentious issues and expressing diverse opinions. We have a moral and legal responsibility to prevent the defamation of any person.
The question then arises, should we allow anonymous postings on the ACP site?
It would appear to me that doing so encourages less than charitable, and less than Christian, instincts to get the better of some people who otherwise would see themselves as Christian in word and in deed. In posting comments, perhaps in anger or frustration, they would see themselves as acting out of concern for the good of the church.
Sadly, as moderator of the comments on this site, I see some commentators who have no problem in ignoring basic human decency, and ignoring the sin of calumny, to make defamatory allegations against those whose opinions differ from their own.
Some seem to think that posing defamatory allegations in the form of a question absolves them of their unjust action; it is an interesting type of ‘mental reservation’.
Making veiled threats is not unknown either. There was one very misguided individual who seemed to think he was defending church doctrine from ever changing by warning that “Pope Francis needs to be VERY (sic) careful over the next year … Faithful Catholics are watching very closely, I promise you that, and we have our allies in high places.”
I was undecided should I forward it to the special branch of the PSNI or Garda, to the Swiss Guard, or just ignore his ‘off the wall’ comment. I ignored it and consigned it to where it belonged, the bin!
Then there is the individual whose voice has to be articulated about every article and post that is judged as being not suitably orthodox; that individual of course being the sole arbitrator of what constitutes orthodoxy.
There is the person, possibly the same arbitrator of orthodoxy, who posts comments under various pseudonyms giving the appearance of individuals acting openly, honestly and transparently. But of course it’s a dishonest attempt to distort a conversation by giving the impression that there are a number of people supporting the same viewpoint.
Offensive comments, anonymous or otherwise, are deleted. Pre-fixing them with ‘I know you won’t publish this, but…’ won’t alter the fact that they are offensive and is guaranteed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
While some people argue that allowing anonymous comments gives a freedom to people to express themselves openly it also devalues the worth of such comments in the eyes of the vast majority. If authors are not willing to put their real names to what they write how can they expect anyone give their opinion serious consideration or make the effort to engage with them in debate.
Perhaps if there was a case where a person would be in mortal danger by having their opinion known there could be a case for withholding a name.
However, because of the grave injustice it would involve, a case can never be made for allowing anonymous allegations be made against any person.
Posters of course should be aware that there is really no such thing as a totally anonymous interaction on the Internet. Every single keystroke while online is traceable back to the computer on which it was made. Legal action has been successfully taken in some cases against people who thought they were acting anonymously when posting online comments. We all need to take heed; the magic of the Ring of Gyges does not extend to the law courts or prevent the accessing of the source of posters’ ISP addresses.
I pose a question for our leadership, for all our members, and for our visitors. Would the quality of comment and discussion on our ACP website improve or worsen if each person’s identity had to be verified before comments were published and if posters were not allowed to publish anonymously or under a pseudonym or multiple pseudonyms.
My experience leads me to believe that the quality would definitely improve and perhaps more people would contribute if they felt they were not fair game for every disgruntled person who prefers to snipe from cover and hasn’t the courage to identify himself or herself when expressing an opinion.
Is it time the Ring of Gyges was decommissioned on this site?
Any attributable comments?
Mattie Long

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  1. Sandra Mc Sheaffrey says:

    Thank you for your comment. Thanks also for the classical reference to what I was taught to be ‘the right way’ to behave! I support the motion to refuse space to anonymous voices. I visit the site daily, commenting occasionally. I value contributions that inform, question, challenge. As we begin a New Year, it would be good to know that this space, as policy, does not allow anonymous/false name contributions.

  2. Excellent post. I will tweet a link for the info of other moderators. Moderation is a lonely task and you have my sympathy.
    My blog has been unmoderated for years but I have now had to start moderating it to control the outpourings of Jersey (CI) trolls. In the case of Jersey it is the policy of responsible bloggers there to accept moderated anonymous comments, and this is understandable as it is a small closed society there with a vicious administration and biased courts system which would be only too happy to embark on a campaign of actual persecution of adverse commenters.
    I used to comment here under a pseudonym, but that was purely out of habit and not to hide my identity. When the matter was raised here I switched to my own name and have no problem with that as I am prepared to stand over any comments I make.
    As you say, and people should note, were it to come to a court case, or even complaints to the Garda, individual computers can be traced via the ISP, IP address and time stamps. It’s a pity some of the more thoughtless commenters are not aware of this. It might just rein them in.
    I check out a lot of blogs over time and the comment stream here is a model. Long may it stay that way.
    As I said, I used not moderate my blog, and there was no real need as very few people read it and most of them were known to me. However, in more recent times I am getting a lot more reaction to my posts about Jersey, and it was pointed out to me that the presence of abusive or wild oomments on the posts was putting some people off referring the posts themselves on to others. In other words these comments were actually devaluing the post and impeding its further circulation. A point to bear in mind.
    I must admit that I do have an additional blog not under my own name as such but I am easily traceable through my website.
    I also have two additional religious Twitter akas but these are just for fun and don’t do any harm as far as I’m concerned.
    I would have some sympathy for pseudonymous posts in the case of the ACP given how Seán Fagan, Tony Flannery and others have been treated but that is clearly entirely a matter for yourselves.
    Rath ar an obair

  3. I approve of all that is proposed here – but, provided the moderator does know the identity of a contributor who would have good reason to be anonymous on the page, might it be left to the moderator’s discretion to allow anonymous publication in special circumstances – so long as the other rules were not breached?
    I appreciate the time and patience given by all the moderators here to what must be often a taxing and tedious chore: thanks!

  4. Politicians too receive a great deal of personal abuse. This led to a politician taking his own life a few years ago. An abusive person cannot be doing God’s will.

  5. john dwyer kirwin,p.p. ret.,u.s.a. says:

    I wholeheartedly second Ms. McSheaffrey’s motion, as we begin a New Year of Salvation.

  6. Maurice Buckley says:

    I mostly lurk, but am in full agreement with the comment above.

  7. Kevin Walters says:

    The question then arises, should we allow anonymous postings on the ACP site?
    The question is should we CONTINUE to allow anonymous postings on the ACP Site
    This topic was discussed on the site a few years ago, the consensus then was yes we should.
    There is a moderator who appears to ensure that posts are free of defamation of any person.
    The Site has slowly but consistently received more visits, it appears to be run in a very competent manor.
    Yes there are individuals whose voices are articulated and posted that are judged by many as not of suitably orthodoxy but this incorporates named persons also. You cannot avoid emotive subjects such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc. And yes in posting and responding to such comments, perhaps in anger or frustration, some may see themselves as acting out of concern for the good of the church. I don’t see any problem with this as many who post on the site appear to be highly educated and are more than capable of discerning the quality of anonymous or named posts as viewed from their own standpoint.
    It goes without saying that a named post carries more credibility but their appears to have been many excellent post made over the last four years by anonymous contributors some of whom now no longer post anonymously. Perhaps some may need to establish themselves by gaining acceptability from regular named participants before openly communicating also if the bar set by the moderator is met, why bar anyone? The moderator states “offensive comments, anonymous or otherwise, are deleted”. I say keep up the good work.
    “While some people argue that allowing anonymous comments gives a freedom to people to express themselves openly it also devalues the worth of such comments in the eyes of the vast majority”
    There is some truth in this statement but the majority also understand that many may feel uncomfortable giving their opinions about controversial topics when they know friends or family might become aware of them, all post are not about hiding but rather about privacy the right to be heard without fear of been judged.
    “I pose a question for our leadership, for all our members, and for our visitors. Would the quality of comment and discussion on our ACP website improve or worsen if each person’s identity had to be verified before comments were published and if posters were not allowed to publish anonymously or under a pseudonym or multiple pseudonyms”.
    Quality may improve but quite possibly by attracting more of the better educated (Articulate) more confident personalities.
    But does the Site only want to attract the better educated? Some less educated participants may lack confidence and so use a pseudonym, quality does always define truth.
    I accept multiple pseudonyms can be a problem as can the act of ingratiation oneself or clique’s etc but generally they can be seen for what they are.
    If ever person’s identity had to be verified before a comment is made it will stifle any spontaneity of the occasional visitor to the site and discourage anyone from making a contribution over the short term, rather than curtail responses we need to encourage visitors to participate. It should also be said true verification is almost impossible over the internet. Better to openly encourage participants to use their real name I believe that ACP sites has a much higher number of named participants than the vast majority of sites and this is to its credit. Giving ones name voluntary denotes trust, you cannot impose trust, to try to do so denotes control, I believe the ACP should continue to welcome all but promote the ideal of named participants.
    When I first found this site I thanked God as I believed that my pray had been answered. Having been stone walled by the Church for over thirty five years I now had the opportunity to speak to the heart of God’s church within the ACP and further afield. From my first post I have used my own name which I believe at the time would have been unverified but has I think gradually been accepted by other contributors as genuine as the consistency of my beliefs expounded upon, carried the same authenticity of character, as do many of the named regular participants on the site also do.
    I believe that if I had approached A Site for verification (Vetting) I would have been labelled as a trouble causer and in some cases depending on the elite(Clique) members been blackballed (So to say) my life made difficult or totally ignored while participating on their particular site. For a short time before participating on this site I participated on perhaps four or five sites, barred from most, one editor said words to the effect “trust my luck to get you on the site” before then closing an establish site down several weeks later.
    For the many victims of Stonewalling (Cover-up) for whatever reason, there is a need for a place where they can be heard by God’s church on earth. I appeal to the membership of the ACP to reject this proposal and remain open to any unverified voice that cries out in destress from the wilderness.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ.

  8. Pat Rogers says:

    Sandra Mc Sheaffrey wrote, “As we begin a New Year, it would be good to know that this space, as policy, does not allow anonymous/false name contributions.” I totally support this in principle, although in practice it will be difficult for the moderator to monitor. If a contributor wishes to use only her/his initials, the full name (plus email address) should be disclosed to the moderator.
    And how charming it is to be reminded of the Ring of Gyges, as a classical test of one’s inherent moral sense!

  9. It is good to see such a clear, straight forward position expressed on the ACP site.
    Too often on sites where writers hide their identity, views are expressed in terms that are detrimental to individual posters. That only serves to detract from an honest exchange of opinion
    I have at times been the subject of such comment.
    It just saddens me that there are those willing to post on Catholic sites in such an uncharitable manner.
    If I write something I will always put my name to it and be held accountable for my opinion. Take me to task if you wish but leave the insult and innuendo behind

  10. Brendan Cafferty says:

    Difficult one. I think the bottom line must be that all posters are genuine and verifiable,genuine email address, phone no etc. After that its up to moderators.Of course there will be dissenting voices and they must be provided for too. But whether a persons full name must be published as in case of Irish Times is a hard one to decide. Some people may have sincere views but may not for various reasons,want full name published-We often get people speaking from the heart there. If for example a priest or layperson wants to express a view that may not run parallel with a Bishop Crean or Doran or Martin, must such a person be refused a forum unless they must have full name given- provided of course the Mods know who they are.

  11. This is an interesting and important issue.
    I would like to comment on what can happen to a writer of a comment on a religious topic on which there are differing opinions and stances.
    Some years ago I wrote to a major newspaper about Ecumenism and Pope John Paul II’s support for the use of a church building by Roman Catholic priests and Anglican clergy. The newspaper published my name and full home address.
    What followed was horrible, I received many letters some disagreeing but polite, however, there were many offering threats and were vitriolic in nature. I was concerned that if my wife or children opened and saw these letters of hate they would be very upset.
    So, nowadays, I write using a nom-de-plume.

  12. Bob Hayes says:

    While the focus of this article is the challenge of ‘anonymous’ contributors, the wider question of moderation is pertinent to any discussion in this area. Most of what I have contributed to this site has been published. Given that I am unsympathetic to most articles it is a credit to the moderator.
    However, the blue crayon of censorship is too often prevalent on blogs that aspire to being Catholic – irrespective of their professed or supposed perspective. It is just over a year ago that I was blocked on the A Call to Action forum based in England – being branded as ‘a known enemy’. I am not a troll, but am outspoken in my views. Folk who aspire to being inclusive and liberal – sometimes – need to lighten-up. Loving one’s enemy is a Cross, but we should strive to carry that Cross. Please.

  13. Comment N0. 3 reflects my position .
    It is such a sad situation in Ireland that many religious will not say publicly what they talk about in private. We all do this – we use prudence.
    But there is a difference between prudence and fear. Also the old adage of ‘Put nothing in writing’ lives on.
    It is so sad that many, whose contributions to this site would be much appreciated,are fearful of repercussions of various sorts.
    Whatever happened to that ‘Boldness of spirit’ which is one of the hallmarks of Christianity?
    We are all guilty for accepting the atmosphere of claustrophobia for so many decades.

  14. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Do people have the right to remain anonymous on the internet? Is this your question? The ACP doesn’t draw up the rules for the internet. This is not their site, this site belongs to the internet which is supported through active participation through its audience. It would not exist if it were not for its audience which is provided through the internet, not the ACP site. I shop anonymously, I walk through town anonymously, most things I do, I do without telling people who I am or what my intentions are. I’m going to pretend that we are not having a conversation, on a website that champions the human rights of individuals, about denying people a human right : to remain anonymous. You can only have content regulation in the form of a list of words that are not allowed to be used. Your statement of not attacking the writer, for as often as the writer might be attacking a subject/person, is even borderline. “Take on the idea not the messenger” is your own guideline. Live by it. I can’t believe this is even a discussion on this site that claims to hold Jesus Christ’s message in its platform. Let he or she who hasn’t stated something regrettable on-line be the first to step away from posting on the ACP site. Ah, suddenly you all disappear.

  15. Ann Walsh says:

    As someone who contributes very occasionally to this site I would very much welcome the policy that all whose comments are displayed should use their correct name or at least be known to the moderator, who should then indicate when posting their comment, that it is done from a contributor who has chosen to use a pseudonym. Anonymous comments should only be posted, I believe, if the points made indicate why it might be unwise for the person to reveal their true identity.
    Such comments should be given limited space and be very occasional.
    This would encourage far more honest debate on this site with a far greater number of contributors.
    I’d go so far as to say that it is a disservice to the readers of this site to give anonymous comments such publicity.

  16. Mícheál says:

    I occasionally post comments here using my first name only. The moderator and the ACP are aware of my identity and have my email address. I choose not to “show” my surname from past experience of being victimized by various ‘competent ecclesiastical authorities’ for the views I expressed.
    I have also had comments not passed by the moderator — clearly one man’s strong critique can be another’s defamation! It might be helpful if the moderator indicated to posters why a comment was blocked. As it stands it comes across to me as personal censorship.

  17. Kevin Walters says:

    Mícheál @16
    I also have had comments not passed and some amended as probable most of those who participate on site may have also. I posted a comment similar to this one a few years ago but it was not passed, so it never saw the light of day, perhaps this time it might.
    To the Moderator
    There is a great need for transparency within the Catholic Church, The ACP should reflect this as transparency is the basis of trust. To have ones post rejected or curtailed can be frustrating, more so if you cannot understand the reason why. I realize that it would be unpractical for you as moderator to give an explanation for every post rejected as this would most probably then lead on to a further confrontation with the contents of the originally post, time is just not available. I realize that there can be many reasons for a rejection of a Post.
    When a post is modified it should be clearly stated as (A) Slightly Modified. (B) Modified (C) Considerably Modified.
    When a post is rejected the Posters name, date and time should remain on the comments list with words to the effect “post rejected”. This would give an overall position of what is happening on the site also further and more importantly if the post had been rejected because of sensitive information relating to stonewalling (any form or cover-up) providing that there is no defamatory information within the post it should be made available to any priest or religious, if they so wish, who is a member of The APC,. Words to the effect could state, “Sensitive post” We need to form a culture of accountability within the church as at this present moment power lies in the hands of unaccountable men as can be seen in the child abuse cover up and the continual denial of its historic culture within the leadership of the church. It was not meant to be like this, Jesus teaches
    “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all”
    A servant must give account to those he serves and this must truly be understood (seen) by all (Believer and non-believer).
    The Shepherds carry this command from God this authority should protect the Church from the abuse of power that we now witness within the church. But sadly it is said our Shepherds have been moulded in immaturity…
    This needs to change.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  18. I would suggest that the issue is not one of anonymity but of the site’s moderator(s) using discretion to prevent libellous and unsubstantiated comments being published as replies.
    Insisting on contributors using their actual and full name would leave them open to abuse, as I have experienced personally, and would not achieve its goal as it is easy to fake one’s identify on the internet if one wishes. I would argue for as much freedom as possible on the site but careful moderation to avoid unsubstantiated slander.
    The issue might be one of there being an insufficient number of moderators on the site.

  19. Peter Shore says:

    I agree with #18. You don’t actually have any way of verifying people’s real identity, so insisting on “real looking” names cannot achieve very much. Moderation according to your own standards is up to you. Like #12, I probably disagree with the content on here more often than not, and I’ve had comments censored, but I appreciate the ACP’s efforts to have some sort of dialogue. At the end of the day it is up to each commenter as to whether they want to engage, given the rules laid down by the site. The Internet is not a democracy and each site moderator is king of their own castle. I always post a real email address, and have no problem standing by all comments.

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