Sarahah app: Anonymity cuts both ways

I remain under no illusion of the internet being still value-free space, devoid of any politics of its own.

 |  8-minute read |   17-08-2017
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I don't know about you but the first time I saw a feed(back) from Sarahah being shared by someone from my friends’ list, it made me oddly nostalgic for the good ol’ secret admirer days and also the infamous "confessions page" days.

The response to Sarahah in its initial days, started with people "trying" to dismiss it as something so "silly" that they would not only "never" partake in it, but also made those already using the app, feel incredibly stupid about their choices in life. Then comes, round two, where the same people who were "trying" to project themselves as the one's with a "life", are seen joining the bandwagon. Because, "why not?" Because, "sorry, not sorry". Because, "curiosity got the best of them". Then comes the third stage, where anonymous messages begin to stretch beyond stroking one's ego and bordering, abuse.

On political correctness

The official description of the app reads, “Sarahah helps people self-develop by receiving constructive anonymous feedback.” Interestingly, Sarahah means "honesty" in Arabic, though this honesty is delivered anonymously.

Posed this way, honesty is freed from responsibility - some like to call it "radical honesty". You rid yourself off of the burden of "civility" and "political correctness", and able to exercise, what the political right may even celebrate this as authentic, unbridled, uninhibited, unhinged "free" speech. But that is the case, only when we assume that there is no disconnect between the commenter’s identity and what he is saying.


Although charges against "political correctness" may be right, those pointing at the narcissistic trap of only wanting to hear favourable things about oneself from the other. But this anonymous form of political incorrectness is certainly not a subversion of the totalitarianism of civility. What remains evidently clear is that this act of "free speech" is far less radical, than say, "parrhesia" where one is in actual danger of risking their life while speaking truth to power.

Which is why this form of political incorrectness is just lousy and can hardly be regarded as a subversion to the normative modernist civility. Simply because, people who are giving you a "constructive feedback", have no risk involved, masking under the veil of anonymity.

However, this is not a critique of anonymity in and by itself, rather a critique of assuming political "incorrectness", as "truth". I don’t mean to call such a masking as a "cowardly" act, because then that would mean in a way that the when the "veil" of anonymity is taken off, the subjects are "themselves", having a coherent identity.

On authenticity and anonymity

The problem of "authenticity", too then is not what I hold against anonymous chatting. For to assume that a person communicating anonymously is devoid of "authenticity", is something I disagree with because, to my mind, authenticity itself remains a contested notion because individuals do not pre-exist their interactions. Rather, it can be said that it is because you identify me that I become "that me" which you have identified.

Here too, an anonymous interpellation through disidentification does take place. Your behaviour is suggestive of and constituted by the larger online "trends" but you think you’re acting independently, "free" from the explicit norms of the sociopolitical culture, except technology is constitutive of the enactment of such an anonymity.

Technology has its politics. So one can say that one is being altered even as they perform anonymity. Interestingly, anonymity also opens up space for us to question sexual difference’s facticity, and even help playing out the idea of in-determinability of gender, where the person receiving anonymous writings cannot by virtue of their writing state confidently if the sender is a man or a woman. Hence, forcing us to rethink the "naturalised" understanding of difference between "gender" and their "roles".

Therefore, I find that the idea of preserving anonymity is worth taking up, for it allows people to be heard without being seen and pre-judged on the basis of their visibility. Historically, pen names, pseudonyms, fake identities have all been used for admirable and understandable purposes - by whistle-blowers, by "deviants", by "dissidents", by the "unlawful", etc.

Anonymity remains central to preserving privacy while asserting multiple identities at once.

On cyberbullying and trolling

The temptation of radical honesty is at once shocking, amusing and healing and many people are likely to want to find out the "masked truths" that people dare not say it to their faces. It helps, in overcoming the fear of the unknown, as the worst could in fact be stated. Call it the fear of missing out or the refusal to resist the temptation, but if it's an app which is out there for people to use, they probably will use it.

Its functional use though is ridden with complications. The lack of risk involved in such a "free-flowing" exchange, would mean there are likely to be no repercussions to this "empty" speech, except one’s own guilt. So it seems that the risk is greater on the part of the person who has wilfully subjected herself to such feedback, making it appear as a "voluntarist/wilfully" self-subjection.

Despite the fact that not being on Sarahah is now considered an aberration, which leave people with not much "choice". It draws you in. 

With the diffusion of responsibility and accountability, one is likely to indulge in all kinds of things otherwise regarded as "amoral". And it is here where, paradoxically, the space simultaneously becomes progressive while also opening up dangers to cyberbullying. This counter space, is at one level transgressive, as it allows one to assume a character apart from the one that they are doomed or destined to play in everyday reality of life.

It is here, that minorities are able to express and articulate their otherwise prohibited "immoral" desires, without the pressures of "coming out". So, yes, when an anonymous counter-space enables truth-telling in a way where an exact coincidence between belief and truth happens - it is a happy accident- where the dangers of confrontation are mitigated by absence of dialogue, through exchange of words between faceless people.

When talking about Sarahah, the focus is not the quality of truth, nor qualification of truth through how freely it is uttered that differentiates these truths. Rather, the focus is on the mere act of truth-telling, at least at the outset.

"Honesty" is not the same as uttering the first thing that comes to one’s mind, that’s bullshitting and too often truth-telling and bullshitting have been used interchangeably. Perhaps, it’s okay to admit that one does experience guilty pleasure in hearing the latter than the former. After all, how many people signed up for the app to really receive "a constructive feedback"?

On an app where not everything is uttered with the intent of telling the truth, or confessing. Some of it just plain banter. Yet, it's the kind of banter that politically holds some significance in offering to people, the possibility of a copy of reality and the entirely artificial dimension of this copy too.

So one cannot then blame the people subscribing to the app which is an unregulated space - which offers hope to remain unidentifiable and offer scope to act beyond the compulsions of modernity.

Also, these interactions may have "real" implications, even as they are ramblings, fictions, truths. All speech has the power to harm without intending to hurt and not all speech that is targeted at causing hurt is recognised as tangibly having caused any "harm".

To ask people to be responsible for their own hurt, in the case where they may feel abused, violated, bullied, or threatened due to cyber attacks is an attempt to cement the rot without treating it.

They are not "solely" responsible for nursing their wounds or shouldn’t get "offended" by the things being written, simply because they voluntarily signed up for it. Surely, one is aware of the risks involved in exposing oneself to numerous "feedbacks" but it is important to locate who are more vulnerable to bitter feedbacks than the better ones.

Women and other minorities are especially preys of virtual abuse/nameless trolling through such apps. We’ve got to come to grips with the ways that racist, homophobic and other oppressive mainstream narratives inform many of the attacks that can too easily be buried within a generic term like "cyberbullying", of which it is only a symptom. The Internet although has afforded many opportunities to experiment with fluid identities, meet new people, and create alternative personas. However, what is happening online is still very much rooted in the offline world, including prejudices.

The standard response to online abuse remains the same, “Don’t be on Sarahah, if you don’t want to get abused.”

Disregarding the mental health implications that it may have on people who are victim of such a bullying. Ever heard that before? Sounds a lot like victim-blaming to me, especially because the people who are in fact likely to face abuse are those who are already marginalised.

Whether anonymously prejudiced, an outright "alt-right" vocalist, an upfront meninist, or passive misogynist - the problems of our times are rooted not in the means through which one exposes their own biases, rather it is a reflection of and extension to the offline world of latent-blatant and all-pervasive discrimination.

One needs to give back to these misogynists, who go around pretending to care about freedom of speech so they can feel self-righteous while harassing marginalised people for having opinions!

As for an institutional redressal? Between protecting anonymity and enforcing consequences for abusive behaviour, the ethical dilemma stares at us. Especially since censure, expanded oversight, surveillance, moderation is not what one would want to resort to.

It'll require more churning for me to find answers to some of these questions, but in the meantime, I remain under no illusion of the internet being still value-free space, devoid of any politics of its own.

Also read: Beware of Hindu-Muslim hate-mongering by 'nationalists' on WhatsApp groups



Avantika Tewari Avantika Tewari @avantikatewari

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