Gyges In Cyberspace


James Evans rails against the online ‘trolling’ that has caught recent media attention.

At the start of their 1990 hit ‘Loaded’, Primal Scream sampled a scene in the film ‘Wild Angels’, in which Hell’s Angels leader ‘Heavenly Blues’ articulates his ambition to be free to do what he wants to do… Fonda’s character wants to be able to enjoy himself without responsibility or commitment to others. He recollects the Ring of Gyges: a legendary artefact discussed in Plato’s ‘The Republic’ which was said to grant the bearer invisibility and thus the ability to do what they want without having to face the consequences.

‘Heavenly Blues’ would have loved the internet. It is not just a smorgasbord of information to be plundered, but also an interactive world in which people can go about their business with almost Gygian anonymity. Herein lies the problem; because there are rarely any consequences to their actions, people can often behave in illegal and irresponsible ways – secure in the knowledge that they will not be held accountable for their actions. Last year, false sex abuse rumours about Lord McAlpine spread unchecked in what some are now calling the ‘Twittersphere’. Prominent and identifiable ‘Tweeter’ Sally Bercow was found guilty of libel in May 2013, but many miscreants more cautious to maintain anonymity appear to have escaped sanction. Many victims probably have neither the means to bring such actions, nor the resources to investigate and track down those who are responsible.

In fact, I was disturbed to learn that a large number of people are now finding themselves the victims of a vicious form of cyber-bullying called ‘trolling’. Apparently, Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned for the Bank of England to retain at least one woman on banknotes (she wasn’t including the Queen!) has also been the victim of a number of misogynistic messages in the last few days since the news about the forthcoming Jane Austen £10 note broke. Notwithstanding the playground rhyme about ‘sticks and stones’, it is clear that targeted harassment of this kind can do significant psychological damage to the victims; worse still, the actions of the offender seem to be divorced from consequences (moral and otherwise) which their actions might have. The sender can ‘fire and forget’ in a similar way perhaps to those who wage remote warfare with IEDs, missiles and drones.

The sender can ‘fire and forget’ in a similar way perhaps to those who wage remote warfare with IEDs, missiles and drones.

In ‘The Republic’, Socrates expresses the view that an enlightened owner would not abuse the power of the Ring of Gyges. Cyber-man has let Plato down!  Whilst it may seem wonderful that people can still be free to ‘do what they want to do’ on the internet, it is clear that society cannot justly accept a situation where such defamation and abuse go unpunished in this one medium. Nor can freedom properly exist where there is no respect for the rights, feelings and freedoms of others. Aligning the ‘real’ world and the ‘virtual’ world should be achieved by bringing the ‘trolls’ into the sunlight: making them accept responsibility and, if appropriate, culpability, for their actions. But equal responsibility is only likely to be achievable if the gods of social media (Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk) help public authorities to remove the Ring of Gyges from its anonymous abusers.


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