Last year, Because I said I would, a website that helps people post a commitment they are making, posted the above video on YouTube, featuring Matthew Cordle confessing to drunk driving the wrong way on a highway and killing a man, and promising that he will take responsibility for his crime. The video went viral, and Cordle has been the recipient of a lot of praise for his bravery, accountability, and message (“I’m begging you, please don’t drink and drive”), but, Jenny Hollander points out in this article, this is only one more confession of a gruesome crime that the anonymity of the internet allows to be glorified.
Between PostSecret, Reddit, and numerous other confession websites, Tumblrs, Facebook pages, most of which allow the confessant to remain anonymous, criminal confessions pop up online and go viral, but there is not much that the criminal justice system can do about it. Hollander says, “an anonymous murder confession on the Internet is, frustratingly, almost impossible to prosecute.” Beyond the impotence of the justice system, this speaks to a more disturbing problem–how much freedom of speech is too much? The anonymity of the internet (even the anonymity of simply being able to make and post a video or a picture with one’s name attached, but not one’s person) may go too far when it allows for not only the confession of these crimes with some degree of immunity, but the celebration of them by the rest of the anonymous internet.
Then again, if the internet is a place for open expression, for stories, shouldn’t people be able to reveal those stories that they most need to tell? Of fights, of rape, of murder? If the victims speak, so shouldn’t the victimizers? If one anonymously confessed to priests before, why shouldn’t she seek absolution in the new, digital confessional?
I also wonder to what degree anonymous confessions deter policing? Yes, yes, they cannot be prosecuted, but if a person is posting their crime on the internet, anonymously or not, are they not self-policing? Maybe they’re bragging, I suppose, but maybe their “conscience” is getting to them; maybe they feel that they need to share this story and face the denouncing or forgiveness of the internet community, of society. By telling their stories, these confessants are making their experiences discursive, to be read, to be shaped and understood through social norms and values, and to be disciplined and corrected if deviating from those norms and values.