Mean Behind the Screen: How Anonymity Online Promotes Uncivil Behavior

Article by Renesha Poole | 700 words

The inception of the Internet greatly changed how people communicate. Chat rooms, emails, forums, blogs and other online spaces speed up communication between users and allow information to spread quickly to the masses. These online spaces have fostered great innovation, creativity and collaboration—and, unfortunately, even greater hostility, bullying and harassment. This cruel behavior is baffling since nearly anything can provoke it. However, recent findings explore this issue in depth and reveal much-needed insight into why online harassment is so pervasive.

The Online Disinhibition Effect



In online spaces where users aren’t required to disclose their real name or other identifying information, malicious individuals use the opportunity to harass other online users. These angry online users, known as trolls, come into discussions and post comments for the sole purpose of upsetting other users and disrupting conversations.

Assistant Professor Arthur D. Santana at the University of Houston explored this behavior in detail. He believes the contempt that lives in online spaces is largely due to the anonymous nature of online spaces. When a user is anonymous, their actions or words have little to no effect on them personally, so inhibition drops. They reject all forms of politeness and kindness in what is called the online disinhibition effect.

The study compared the tone of thousands of online comments posted by anonymous and non-anonymous users following online newspaper stories. Santana discovered that 53.3 percent of anonymous comments included vulgar, racist, profane or hateful language. On the contrary, only 28.7 percent of non-anonymous comments were found to be uncivil.

Santana’s study also found that non-anonymous commenters were nearly three times as likely to post civil comments. Specifically, 44 percent of non-anonymous commenters posted civil comments following news articles as compared to 15 percent of anonymous commenters. Santana says of the correlation between civility and anonymity: “In short, when anonymity was removed, civility prevailed.”

Other research has supported Santana’s claims. In an article titled “Being Anonymous on the Web Brings Out People’s Mean Side,” Professor Daniel Martin of California State University explains, “We behave in a different way when online. It’s as if you’re wearing a cloak or a mask and, well, you can get away with it.”

Psychologists refer to this barrier that trolls place between themselves and other users as deindividuation. “When in a mask or uniform or group, you cease to recognize even yourself as an individual and therefore don’t see others that way, either, don’t see how you’re hurting someone,” Martin says.

Curbing the Trolling Epidemic Online

Martin suggests people should use their real identities to reduce online hostility and combat deindividuation. Professor Dacher Keltner of the University of California believes users should conduct themselves online as if people know who they are: “Basically, if I’m writing something, and I know my mom and my colleagues and my daughters are going to read it, I’m going to be on my best behavior.” Before submitting a comment, ask yourself if you would say that to someone in real life—if not, perhaps you need to act more polite.

Websites such as The Huffington Post, YouTube and Rotten Tomatoes are doing their part in curbing online harassment by enacting measures that create a more welcoming environment for all their users. Since YouTube’s integration with Google Plus, the names provided on Google Plus accounts are also made visible when a user comments on a video. (Unfortunately, this does not stop people from making Google Plus accounts under fake names.) Movie review site Rotten Tomatoes reevaluated its anonymous commenting policy after threatening comments forced the company to shut down its comments board temporarily. The Huffington Post and other online newspapers now require readers to sign into their Facebook accounts to comment on stories. In fact, 48.9 percent of the 137 largest U.S. newspapers have disallowed anonymity in their commenting forums, according to Professor Santana.

Disallowing anonymity will not stop online users from acting mean. Despite efforts to prevent people from writing inflammatory comments, those who wish to act mean will do so. However, banning anonymity could reduce the number of troll comments people have to sift through. It’s a step in the right direction to rid online spaces of the vile discourse that undermines their purpose.

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