This question is as old as the Internet itself. It is often remarkable just how people behave differently when they are online, often under the guise of anonymity. The Internet allows us to become different people, to behave in ways that we cannot often behave in everyday lives. This can be quite positive, for people who tend to be introverted and quiet when in person, the Internet often provides a chance to be more open and to communicate without the anxiety that often accompanies social interaction. Personally, I often feel like my online persona is closer to the “real me” that I am whenever people talk to me. When people meet me for the first time, particularly if they have read me online before, my real person seems to come as a surprise.
But this difference can often be negative, the Internet is teeming with trolls, racists, misogynists, homophobes, and all sort of dubious behaviour. It seems like anonymity often brings out the worst in people.
Online identity is back as a subject of debate because of a Reddit troll going by the name “HanAssholeSolo”, who became famous after Donald Trump posted a gif he created which portrays the US president beating a person whose face has been replaced by the CNN logo. It soon emerged that Mr Solo had a history of posting openly racist and anti-Semitic content, and a CNN journalist found his real identity. When confronted with the possibility of being unmasked, Solo quickly wrote an apology denouncing his previous output, and deleted all of his old posts. He said in a now deleted apology on Reddit:
“I would also like to apologize for the posts made that were racist, bigoted, and anti-semitic. I am in no way this kind of person, I love and accept people of all walks of life and have done so for my entire life. I am not the person that the media portrays me to be in real life, I was trolling and posting things to get a reaction from the subs on reddit and never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts. I would never support any kind of violence or actions against others simply for what they believe in, their religion, or the lifestyle they choose to have. Nor would I carry out any violence against anyone based upon that or support anyone who did.”
CNN posted the apology, and also commented that they would not be publishing his identity.
I found the apology fascinating because it is one often shared by similar online trolls whenever their real identity is in danger. The prevailing narrative amongst many in the alt-right community is that they are not really racist, they online pretend to be in a sort of shared joke that is trying to shock people, the media, the mainstream population. They are only shitposting, it’s all for giggles, for the lulz. When uncovered, the apology is the same: “I’m not really a racist, I just play one online”.
While it is evident that online identity is tricky, and that in many ways it allows us to play with various personas and roles, I find it hard to believe such apologies, perhaps because it is a type of behaviour with which I cannot identify or empathise. I could believe being playful and trying different opinions in an online forum for a while, and a few occasions I pretended to hold a different view to that which I really espoused in order to participate in “enemy territory” forums. I also have no difficulty believing that some people who seem to be more controversial online are actually very different in real person. But I cannot believe that most people who post racist content constantly, day in and day out, are not really like that in real life.
Paraphrasing Doctor Who, how do you behave without hope, without witness, without reward? That is who you really are.