‘Fake’ Names, Real Concerns

The issue of ‘kiaman’—or fake—names is a perennial topic both on social media and off. On one side are those who insist that everyone should stand up and hold their opinion proudly. On the other side are people who worry that merely sharing their thoughts will land them in hot water.

Truth be told, opinion among the staff and management of the Daily Post is mixed, too.

Without utterly discounting one side or the other, it would nonetheless be useful to challenge a few of the arguments, both for and against.

Some commenters have equated anonymous speech to unsigned letters to the editor in this newspaper. That comparison is not correct. Our editorial staff know the identity of every writer; it’s a requirement for publication. And we are responsible for everything printed in our newspaper. If a legal complaint is made against the letter, we’re as much on the hook as the writer of the thing.

That’s not the same as when someone posts a comment on social media. In high volume discussion groups, it’s simply not possible to police every single comment in real time. Most of these groups are administered by volunteers who have neither the time nor the inclination to read every single comment and every single post.

Nor should they have to. Just as bar owners are not liable for fights that occur on their premises, administrators of public discussion groups cannot be held liable for the statements of others. As long as they have fulfilled a reasonable duty of care, they cannot be responsible for every single person visiting the place.

Just as bars usually have a code of conduct, and security staff in place to deal with violations, discussion groups should have a clear set of rules of behaviour, and should be consistent and fair in the application of those rules.

Generally, if a group is well-policed, there will still be momentary flare-ups of unruly behaviour, but the overall environment will accord with social norms.

In such a group, anyone should feel that they can express themselves as they see fit, provided that they are reasonably respectful—which is not to say even-tempered.

But to claim, as some do, that this is all that’s needed for anyone to say anything using their real identity is simply not on. If we’re honest about the issue, we have to accept that what may feel like a safe forum for an adult man of means or position might not feel the same for others.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that women are still judged according to a double standard. If we’re honest, we will recognise that traditionally, youth didn’t have the same standing as adults.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that, in Vanuatu, the message is often judged according to its messenger.

That has to change.

That is changing, in fact. The mere presence of SMS, email, social media and other electronic means of communication means that it’s no longer necessary to write a letter to the editor, who might or might not feel strongly enough about your opinion to print it.

Social media is a democratic, and democratising, influence. As such, it militates against some of the assumptions we’ve come to take for granted. Not the least of these is the unquestioning respect we once showed for authority.

Social media is, fundamentally, a marketplace for ideas. It’s the thought, not the thinker, that matters. Pseudonyms and anonymous talk are not the problem. They simply allow us to focus on the idea instead of the identity.

That’s a new thing, but I think it’s a good thing.