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Don’t let Sarahah off the hook

There’s more to this anonymous feedback app than apparent at first glance

Sarahah is one of those trends where even mentioning the word would incite a series of cringes from a room – maybe even from those who have tried it and are now trying to hide it. This anonymous feedback app took the internet by storm this month and almost overwhelmed social media with random messages from unknown strangers. Some were good, some were bad, some were downright pointless. But one thing that was common overall was the perception that beyond a certain ego boost (or deflation) Sarahah is harmless. In reality, it is far from that.

One of the most dangerous things about Sarahah is how popular it has become. It has reached a point where people can come up to you and ask you if you’re on Sarahah. You could very well be considered an outsider if you’re not. And that kind of peer pressure, or FOMO, might have pushed a lot of people onto the platform who weren’t really ready for what they were getting themselves into.

All that anonymous hate

People are generally not their own selves on social media. Don’t get us wrong, we are not talking about multiple identities here. But someone’s persona online can, and mostly is, vastly different in multiple aspects than their persona offline. And anonymity adds another layer to that. Anonymity in the digital space brings about something termed as the “online disinhibition effect” where the commentator is separated from what he or she is saying. In this context, the anonymous message, intended to make you more honest, takes you away from your identity as a person. That, as a result, dehumanizes the other person in your viewpoint and allows you to be as ruthless or praising as you wouldn’t normally be. And praise is not something people are generally bashful about.

If you put a gullible teenager in the Sarahah spotlight, there is no guarantee that it won’t backfire. An unending stream of hateful comments – be it about body shaming, sexual harassment or cyber bullying – could do irreversible damage to someone at that age or mental maturity. We are pretty sure that all of us have seen or heard of at least one Sarahah outburst where the receiver couldn’t really handle what they received. And that is when things are not that serious.

Rape and death threats on Sarahah, or even anonymous platforms in general, are not new. In fact, every single time a platform like this has come up (Yik Yak, Secret etc) have been shut down after facing a number of legal issues and court orders. Every single one of them gave rise to significant bullying, threats, and harassment. And why not? Something like the dangerous blue-whale challenge could basically thrive on such a platform. In fact, we don’t even need technology to do this all the time. Then why do we keep popularising platforms like this whenever they come up? Because they’re simple, they’re easy and they’re right there in our hands.

It is true that anonymity encourages participation. And that makes sense for a forum with a dedicated purpose – like a 360-degree performance appraisal at a workplace or a parent-teacher feedback panel. But there is no purpose served by anonymity at a personal level, other than bringing out what would be beneficial at large to be known publicly instead – be it a death threat or a romantic confession.

The tech issues

Sarahah does not offer anything new from a technology perspective. It could have set the example for each message sent by outright declaring that a user can be, and is, tracked – which is true. Sadly, it doesn’t do any of that. On the other hand, a user, being unaware, inadvertently puts their trust in the app because it didn’t even ask them their name. When somewhere, all IP addresses and referral links are being tracked by the developers on their end. And with the abundance of leaks and hacks that we see every day, from the Ashley Madison debacle to the Swedish data leak, by now we should know better than to trust anonymity online.

Unfortunately, any of the conclusions above don’t look like they’re going to change our penchant for going crazy about online anonymity anytime soon. As Peter Steiner puts it, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.