On the internet you can take any persona you desire: your own, a pseudonym, or maybe a person of your own creation. For many of us our social media accounts reflect our identities, which makes sense considering how we use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to connect with our friends and even promote our work. But it is just a few steps to create a new account with a new name and background that may not be anything like the reality of your life. And on sites like Reddit and Tumblr, anonymity may in fact be your primary use for that platform. For example, none of my friends or family knows my Reddit username and I don’t share many aspects of my personal information in my comments or posts. It’s not a platform for socialization or self-promotion, but rather personal entertainment.
But this anonymity allows room for the worst in people to take hold. While some anonymous online communities do have some objectively good consequences (for example Reddit’s gift exchanges or charity drives) there also create opportunities for harassment and extremism. When nobody knows who you are, you do not face real consequences for your actions or words. And this has been studied; “psychological restraints that often serve to block or conceal emotions and undisclosed needs are found to be lowered in cyberspace” (Lapidot-Lefler, 2012). An effect called the “negative online disinhibition effect” is present in online communication and “[manifests] in aggressive behaviours that apparently would not be exhibited in the ‘real world’” (Lapidot-Lefler, 2012). Indeed it’s been found that “extremism increases with increased online participation” (Wojcieszak, 2010) for groups like the Ku Klux Klan and most notably today, ISIS.
Because of this anonymity, things like hate speech, harassment and doxxing (where you steal and share a person’s private information), and extremism can occur without consequence. And the people behind it may never exhibit these kind of behaviours offline, they may indeed be the kind of people you see and talk with everyday.
Most important to know is that there are consequences in the real world that stems from this hatred. Cyberbullying has the same structure as it’s real world manifestation, it’s just uses a different medium, and so people who face harassment online are more likely to suffer from depression (Pappas, 2015). Online extremists have more political influence because they reach more people and build a “homogenous online community” that can influence political participation and public perception (Wojcieszak, 2010). And the threats of doxxing has led to safety concerns for online personalities, most notably feminist bloggers, who have in effect been silenced because of the fear of having their personal information exposed (King, 2015).
These kinds of actions can easily overshadow the positive interactions we have online, as they threaten the security of real people and the credibility of other online communities. Although stopping these hateful actions is easier said than done, both private websites and law enforcement have methods to limit this kind of behaviour, which I’ll discuss in the next post.
King, B. J. (2015, February 26). A Toxic Stew: Risks To Women Of Public Feminism. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2015/02/26/389233371/a-toxic-stew-risks-to-women-of-public-feminism
Lapidot-Lefler, N. & Barak, A. (2012). Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact on toxic online disinhibition. Computers in Human Behaviour, 28, 434-443.
Pappas, S. (2015, June 22). Cyberbullying on Social Media Linked to Teen Depression. LiveScience. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/51294-cyberbullying-social-media-teen-depression.html
Wojcieszak, M. (2010). ‘Don’t talk to me’: effects of ideologically homogeneous online groups and politically dissimilar offline ties on extremism. New Media & Society,