Seventh Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics →

Who’s Behind That Tweet?

  • AuthorEric Lebowitz
  • Published Friday, February 8th, 2013
  • Comments3

One of the most common complaints I hear about America — from print, radio and television pundits on both ends of the political spectrum — is that we now live in a society ruled by political correctness.That statement is really only half true, however, because most people, excluding those who make a living creating controversy, are only concerned with being politically correct, or even civil, when their reputations, careers or finances are at risk.

A quick look at almost any Twitter feed makes obvious that the cloak of anonymity produces large quantities of what is commonly referred to as “Internet Courage.” Put more simply, a lot of people seem to be brave enough to post just about anything online, as long as nobody knows who is posting it. There is even a scientific name for this phenomenon: “Online Disinhibition.”

All a person needs to create a Twitter account is an email address. A user is not required to provide any verifiable personal information and once an account is created, that user can post just about anything. That is not to say it is possible to act with complete impunity on Twitter: If you make bigoted or threatening remarks and are reported, your account will be suspended.

If you tweet a detailed assassination plan @BarackObama, chances are someone is going to show up at your door and ask you about it. In fact, last fall, a North Carolina man who tweeted that he was planning the president’s murder was visited by the Secret Service and subsequently arrested.

The United States government could probably track any anonymous Twitter user anywhere in the world. But the government doesn’t care if two people with differing political or social philosophies call each other names. In the vast majority of cases, people can say just about anything with absolutely no threat of repercussion other than the possibility of a temporary account suspension.

Last year, San Francisco 49ers’ kick returner Kyle Williams fumbled twice in the NFC Championship against the New York Giants, costing his team a chance to play in the Super Bowl. (As a Giants fan, this pleased me greatly). Shortly thereafter Williams, somewhat predictably, received some hateful messages on Twitter, including one from a nameless, faceless individual wishing death upon Williams and his family.

Death. Because of a football game.

In an ESPN radio interview the day after the game, Williams expressed shock at the comments.

“Some people cross that line and don’t think twice about it … don’t think that there’s somebody on the other side of that line that may feel that or that may have to respond to that or may have to deal with that,” Williams said. “People just write blindly and I guess that’s to be expected with how open Twitter is and how open Facebook is. Again, there’s a line and some people cross it and some people have respect for it.”

Any stable person, no matter how big a sports fan, realizes the outcome of a game simply isn’t important enough to wish for someone’s untimely demise. In all likelihood, whoever wrote the tweet understands that too and made the comment in a moment of irrational anger. But because he/she knew the tweet wouldn’t be traced, there was really no reason to pause before sending it.

No self-respecting journalist would ever advocate limiting free speech. I am not challenging anyone’s right to wish for Kyle Williams’ death — provided that he/she isn’t threatening to cause the death  — idiotic though it might be. I am, however, questioning whether that person should be allowed to make the wish anonymously.

I believe a strong argument can be made for requiring users to provide some sort of identification and a real name to use Twitter and similar sites. If celebrities can have “verified” accounts, surely it would be pretty simple for Twitter to confirm the identities of all its users in a similar fashion.

The purpose of requiring identification would not be to punish people for posts they make — rather, the idea is to force people to stand up and take responsibility for them. While I understand that facilitating the exchange of ideas is not the sole purpose of social media, I believe it is one of its most important functions. Slinging mud from behind an empty Twitter handle makes productive dialogue nearly impossible and simply perpetuates further nastiness.

Requiring identification for Twitter would create some dilemmas. People suffering under oppressive governments need anonymity to avoid persecution. A rebel tweeter in Saudi Arabia, for example, has accumulated nearly a million followers by exposing corruption inside the country’s royal family.

Maybe an identification policy would only work in the United States. Maybe Twitter could allow users to make a case for an anonymous account and decide each case individually. Ultimately, these kinds of decisions would be left to the site’s gatekeepers, but the general idea is to create accountability.

I have to admit, I got the idea for this piece through personal experience. Last year, I set up a Twitter account for work, and after getting the hang of the site, I created a personal account from a different computer, using a different e-mail address. I did not post a photo or any personal information — I followed nobody, and nobody followed me.

I bounced around the site until I found some accounts — belonging to celebrities and regular folks alike – espousing beliefs I strongly oppose. I engaged in some petty name calling, my anger rising a bit with every tweet. I knew these people had no idea who or where I was, which made it easy to attack them.

It took a conversation with my younger brother to realize what should have been apparent right away; what I was doing made me feel good temporarily, but it was childish and a waste of my time. If I felt strongly enough about an issue to engage in a war of words online, he asked, wouldn’t my time be better spent trying to help in some tangible way?

Of course it would.

Eric Lebowitz is a professional journalist currently working for a community newspaper in Westchester County, New York. His work has been published on the Websites of The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, Golf Digest Magazine and amNewYork. You can contact him at

3 Responses to “Who’s Behind That Tweet?”

  1. Abhinav says:

    I really liked the idea of this essay. It’s so true that people go overboard or cross the line on Twitter just because they have the anonymity and safety behind their computer screens.

    As you gave the example of Kyle Williams, I watch soccer a lot and people post death threats even mentioning particular players on Twitter whenever they do badly or cause an error. Some have no sympathy as players whose performances have deteriorated due to an incident such as a broken leg for example, cause fans to tweet stuff like “I hope you break your leg again!” not realizing the trauma suffered by a player or any individual when an incident like that occurs.

    The same goes for racist remarks though I’ve noticed people uniting against certain tweeters, asking people to report them – with some individuals getting rightfully arrested for their tweets.

    The idea of requiring identification for Twitter is useful and would help in cases such as these but I feel it would take up too much time and lower the appeal of Twitter as well as not being beneficial in cases such as the rebel tweeter in Saudi Arabia.

    All in all, good write-up though.

  2. Kevin says:

    On the internet people can pretend to be anyone. There are countless fake Instagram accounts and Facebook profiles, but there are even more Twitter accounts where the owner is unclear. You write, “All a person needs to create a Twitter account is an email address. A user is not required to provide any verifiable personal information and once an account is created, that user can post just about anything.” This is reality, and it is a little strange that I can open a Twitter and make people believe I am any number of people. With that in mind, is it really possible to know who’s actually behind a twitter account? For someone you know personally it may be easier to decipher whether or not their tweets are legitimate, however when it comes to a public figure and/or celebrity, someone could do serious damage to their image without followers realizing that the tweets are illegitimate. The ethical dilemma here is somewhat obvious. Taking someone’s identity is wrong, but I feel that unless that person is doing threatening things then it should simply be overlooked. The twitter account dedicated to Angelina Jolie’s right leg did not do anything morally wrong. While the person behind it was obviously not Angelina the account, it was humorous and did not mean for any harm. If only more people aimed for humor alone, but many people take things too far which is why we must dissect this issue and show people the ways of digital ethics.

  3. Lauren says:

    The idea of “online disinhibition” is fascinating and
    unsettling. The fact that people feel they can post anything online without
    anyone knowing it was them can be quite harmful. This provides people with the
    opportunity to literally write anything they please. They can write racist,
    sexist, homophobic, etc comments and never truly be held accountable for their
    writings. People can cause others such high levels of harm without ever meeting.
    This harm means causing emotional problems when people do not think they have
    self worth. Anonymity is a right that people have, but these kinds of
    situations create gray areas within our ideas of ethics. Personally, I dislike
    that users can create a Twitter account without their real names. This leads to
    more harm than good. People are bullied online and this causes emotional harm.
    If people had to use real names, they would not write as many of the hateful
    comments they do today. It would be nearly impossible to have people use their
    real names because what is to stop people from making up fake names anyway. We
    cannot force people to verify themselves on Twitter even though I think that
    could cut out a lot of bullying that occurs on Twitter. Even if there may be a
    clear way to fix the practice of online disinhibition, I do not think Twitter
    would allow that. Everyone has a right to free speech. People are drawn to
    websites where they do not need to use their real names. They feel they will
    not be judged for their comments. These people cannot be held accountable for
    their online forms of free speech because there is not anything stopping them.
    No one is monitoring their posts unless it is a serious situation when the
    government gets involved. It would be wonderful if people had to use real names
    for all behavior on the internet. Unfortunately, that will probably never
    happen because everyone loves the right to free speech.

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