Masks and anonymity are tools. They create an illusion; behind a smokescreen, there can be a large, intimidating group whose threats are credible, or one lonely guy who wants to heighten his own sense of self-importance, or anything in between. It is one of the weapons used to distract and dishearten us. The lack of certainty of the source can compound the fear induced by hateful messages. In fiction, it is used as a sign of power.
In “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wizard’s power is greatly diminished when the curtain is literally pulled aside, exposing the mortal man behind it. Despite the power that he has managed to accrue, it’s revealed that it’s all an elaborate ruse. In “V for Vendetta,” V’s sense of self-importance is elevated by the idea that he stands for a greater meaning, all because he is hidden behind the mask. By obscuring his face, it is implied he is something more than human. V himself says, “Behind this mask is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea…and ideas are bulletproof.” In contrast to the Wizard, V hides his face to empower himself from a position of shame. Speaking more generally, suspense in films and TV shows comes from the hidden identity of the antagonist or their hidden intentions. It taps into our very basic fear of the unknown. To supposedly transcend actuality and exist in a more abstract realm bestows more power than is deserved.
The internet leads to a new form of anonymity, whether actual or perceived. In many cases, one’s identity can be protected. Benefits, like the ability to securely send tips with highly sensitive material to news organizations, have certainly come with technological advancements. However, with these benefits comes various forms of cyberbullying and harassment. In my elementary school, for example, I remember a couple of girls getting in trouble with the administration because they made a Gmail account to send mean messages to their classmates. It was the modern-day equivalent of a paper airplane with a critical caricature landing on your desk in the middle of class.
Facelessness suggests a greater power. Internet trolls rarely have profiles with their real names or faces on them. Twitter eggs, for example, protect whoever hides behind them. (The company ended up actually removing the egg as the default icon because it became so closely linked with anonymous harassment.) Frequent commenters on Argus articles have names like “Man with Axe,” with cartoon figures of Grim Reapers serving as their icon. Threats sent in by David Ackman from Lexington, Kentucky are much less menacing.
Anonymous, the hacking collective, functions in a similar way. Although their causes often align with the political left and they are therefore often seen in a more favorable light by liberal news sources, they use the same tactic of facelessness to suggest a larger threat. In reality, they are a group of several thousand hackers, working to take down Donald Trump and eliminate child pornography from the internet and so much more. However, not knowing exactly where the threat comes from and the mystery that shrouds the organization gives it more power, instilling greater fear in whoever their target is next. Their threats, unlike those of many who choose to identify themselves, are credible because they have developed a reputation, despite their facelessness.
At the end of the day, the great and powerful Wizard of Oz is an old man behind a curtain pulling the levers for a light show. V is good with knives, owns a dictionary with a heavily used “V” section, and plants a few bombs. The murderer is probably the jealous ex-boyfriend.
Anonymity is a tool. Various forms of it exist, whether to keep the person behind the mask safe or give them a larger stature in the eyes of the public. Especially with modern day technology, it can be wielded by anyone and everyone. It is not hard to be anonymous; if anything, it’s much easier. Contributing to the vast collective of sourceless hate is as simple as sending out a few words attached to a picture of a cartoon egg. But do not allow yourself to be tricked by those who claim to stand for a larger cause and yet are screaming alone. Proclaiming an opinion as your own is difficult, and it takes a degree of privilege.
In the past week, the University has been shaken by the hateful posters that were anonymously put up around campus. None of my identities were targeted by the hateful messages. Perhaps I would feel differently if they had been, or, at least, I might hesitate. However, in my mind, the appearance of the posters without a proud source is merely a tactic. It is meant to feel as if the very buildings around you are against you, that the support for you and various parts of your self is not as strong as it once was. And yes, it is an offensive reminder of the hate that exists. But, for all we know, this was the act of one angry man running around campus (or, more likely, the small white nationalist group of non-students that gathered on Washington that same morning). However, despite the power and protection that anonymity often lends, there is an important human component that is entirely removed.
Knowing a person’s experience lends to the impact of their views. An anonymous senator making comments about Congress’ proceedings is much less valued than John Lewis’ views on civil rights. His background gives greater weight to his words. The anonymity of their actions lends only to their cowardice and their knowledge that who we imagine they are is much scarier than their true selves. If you have the ability, if you are safe in doing so, declare your individuality. And ignore those who demean you from behind the mask of a florescent egg.