Sumner Redcliffs Anglican Church

The problem of anonymity

*This article was written by Bishop Jay Behan of the Confessing Anglicans of New Zealand.

I think it will be many years before we really have a clear understanding of the effect the internet has had on humanity. It’s hard when you’re in the midst of things to really appreciate and understand them; it is only in the future that we will be able to look back, make judgements, and learn lessons.

That said, we already know that it’s hard to overstate the change the internet has brought to us. Can you think of an invention that has brought the world closer together than the internet—that has provided such incredible opportunities for communication and brought information (and therefore power) to so many people? I’ve sometimes pondered the fact that the last great invention to provide something like this was the printing press which, in many ways, contributed to the Reformation of the 16th Century. Now we have the internet, and many would argue we are experiencing in real time a second Reformation in Christendom (comparing and contrasting these two reformations may well be another Bishop Writes for another time).

The internet has been a revolution in our society, and there is much to give thanks for.

But there is no doubt that it has also brought about danger, temptation and problems. I think one of the lessons future generations may take from looking back at our time will be the devastation wreaked by internet usage.

The aspect I’d like to focus on today is the issue of online anonymity. The fact that we can access so much, view so much, take part in so much in relative privacy means that many of us do things we would never do if it were public. The fear of being seen or recognised or caught is absent (or, perhaps more correctly, is thought to be absent!), and people act accordingly.

Let me give some examples.

In the past, obtaining or viewing pornography required human interaction (e.g. shop assistants, mingling with other patrons of establishments). That interaction was enough to cause many people to balk at taking part. But now, in the privacy of our homes, the protective curtain of anonymity allows some to feel free to do what they would never have done before. In 2015, ‘Ashley Madison’—an online dating service designed to provide opportunities for people to cheat on their partners—experienced a major data breach that revealed the names of over 30 million subscribers worldwide. These were not people having an affair because a relationship formed and feelings developed over time, leading things to go too far. This was millions of people making the deliberate decision to cheat, then signing up to a website that provided the chance to do it. I contend that it is the anonymous aspect that had a lot to do with so many people being part of it.

But it’s not just sex. Think of the way people communicate online. It is all too common to come across hateful, violent, disgusting comments posted online about people, situations and circumstances. How many people would say such things out loud to the person involved? Once again, I think anonymity allows people to do and say things they wouldn’t normally. Rory Shiner, a pastor in Perth (and a friend from Bible college) makes this observation: “You know when you yell at someone in the traffic and then you find yourself stopped at the lights next to them and then it’s awkward because you have to make eye contact and they are a normal human? Social media is basically that, but you never stop at the lights.”

There are practical things we can do in this area. We can keep and use our devices in public places in the home. We can share passwords and accounts with other family members, use accountability software that tells other people what we are viewing, and not use private browsing, ‘Incognito’ mode and the like.

Such practical steps can be helpful, but I wonder if the most important thing to do is to remember that we are never anonymous. I’m not just talking about potential hacking and public outing (as with Ashley Madison), or the fact that big tech companies know more about our lives than most of us realise (or care to admit). I’m talking about the fact that we are never hidden from the Lord. The writer of Hebrews tells us: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:13).

We should all take practical steps. But the best thing we can do is to ask the Lord to strengthen us and equip us by his Spirit so that it’s not just fear of being caught that prevents us doing things; rather, we’re transformed by a change of heart that occurs within us and positively motivates us to do what’s right. “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:16–18).