Online Anonymity Creates an Uninhibited Effect
When People Can be Anonymous They Can Also be Toxic
What Happened to Civility and Respect for Others?
In my recent online dealings through freelance writing, I have found a marked increase in the numbers of anonymous comments left by people. These comments can be in the form of personal attacks, or simply nasty things being said in the heat of the moment. Lately, it seems that a lot more moments have become heated really for no good reason. The only reason I can think of for some of the comments people leave is "because I can".
After looking into it, I've found that others have addressed this topic and have labeled this the online disinhibition effect. It seems to happen when people feel as if they're cloaked in a sense of anonymity hidden behind their cell phone or keyboard, or even when they feel as if they're shielded by the physical metal barriers of an automobile. When they're in an automobile, they're not online of course, but they still seem to feel this ability and entitlement to air out their frustrations and pure anger and other negative emotions. In some cases, they direct their anger at other drivers. This I believe leads to incidents of road rage.
This online disinhibition effect was written about as far back as 2004 by a psychology professor named John Suler in a paper written for Rider University. He talked about benign disinhibition, which is simply being overly personal in the things people reveal about themselves online (think oversharing, something we've all seen people do on social media). Then he also wrote about toxic disinhibition, the angry, hostile and sometimes even threatening behavior of some people that can lead to cyber-bullying. What it comes down to is that the ability to stay anonymous or to feel as if you're completely anonymous can lead to perplexing behavior in some people.
Harmless and Harmful Anonymity
The Anonymity of Being in a Car
When you're in your car, many people feel safely anonymous. You can do harmless things like singing along - loudly - to your favorite songs on the radio. I've done this a few times, leading to my singing some pretty boisterous duets with my favorite singers. And then, I'm usually thankful that no one can hear me!
The behavior can become troubling, though, when you let anger get the best of you. You perceive that someone has slighted you, maybe by cutting you off, or just by driving with a constant "me first" attitude. It gets frustrating. I get it. I've been there, too. Where it becomes bad or even dangerous is when you start to feel incredibly angry about it. You start to seethe and feel increasingly hostile.
I believe some people lose the ability to control these negative emotions, leading to the incidents of road rage we hear about on the news. You hear of people being shot, getting into car accidents and otherwise being injured due to someone's rage-filled behavior. The anonymity of being in your car can be humorous when you come out with a string of expletives and then let it go. It becomes dangerous when people choose to act on the negative emotions.
Online Anonymity is a Whole Different Animal
The anonymity people feel when they're online can lead to some incredibly nasty and negative behavior. This is especially true when people feel that there will be no consequences for their untoward behavior. The truth is, though, with the ability to archive things that have been posted and written on the Internet and on social media, and with the ability to track people using today's technology like ISP numbers, people are not as anonymous as they may think they are. The ISP number is an Internet Service Provider number and it gives people a way to find out which computer is being used to access the Internet. It can also lead to finding out information like phone numbers. Other tools like tracking and geo-location can be used to find where something is coming from.
It's been amazing for me to see how people can feel emboldened to say things that I believe they would never say to a person's face if they had to do it that way. They feel entitled to behaviors like name calling and character smearing. It seems to be led by passionate feelings combined with feeling that they truly are anonymous and can get away with it.
Some people who leave these types of comments are called trolls. They can feel empowered to say things that are racist and sexist and use rhetoric that would never be accepted if they were said in person. It only takes them a few clicks to take a cheap shot at another person, so they do it.
Sometimes I find myself reading a story and thinking "I can't wait to see the comment section on this one!" And honestly, the comments can be humorous and entertaining. In some cases, they can go too far and they can be considered humiliating and border on cyber-bullying. It seems today that if someone feels they can get away with saying something negative, nasty or uncivil, that they'll go ahead and say it.
Feeling as if you're anonymous online can lead to things like harassment and attempts to defame someone. Even things that are clearly illegal are done in somewhat of an uninhibited way since there is a tendency not to prosecute those who are acting this way.
As a result, I've noticed that on some newspaper and media articles, the comments sections have been disallowed and removed. This is one way to avoid the negativity if you're posting something that you think can lead to negative comments.
Several publications that have removed comment sections include:
- Popular Science
- Chicago Sun-Times
- Huffington Post
- Idaho Statesman - They limit comments to only people who have a Facebook account
In my own experiences with people who are searching the Internet and reading articles that I've posted there, I find that I delete any questions that are not really questions. Anything that says "you're an idiot" or worse gets zapped. I also delete comments that were posted purely to be insulting or vitriolic.
Real, honest discussions are fine, but when it leads to extreme emotion and name calling, that to me crosses an unacceptable line.
Sometimes Anonymity is Necessary
Anonymity can be necessary in instances when someone is reporting a crime, where they're trying to report on corruption within an organization and they might have a fear of retaliation, and when research is being done. Anonymity was even addressed in the Supreme Court in 1995, but at the time it was dealing with whether people have the right to distribute campaign materials - it was decided that they do.
Being able to write nasty comments on Internet posts is another issue. Those who do the writing seem to get some kind of thrill out of knowing that they can get away with it. Some people try to engage these trolls (someone else's word not mine) and call them out on their behavior, but this can backfire and just lead to an online virtual and sometimes escalated fight.
Some online forums use moderators who are charged with seeing that things remain civil. When that's not possible or feasible, the writer of the article can be responsible for whether the comments or questions get published or not. That's part of the beauty of writing for this website. Writers here can moderate their own comment and question sections. I've found that I've had to do this quite a bit on one of the pieces I wrote here, the one about thinking about a few things before getting a bully breed type of dog.
In that case, I never said don't get one, or that they're not good animals. I simply tried to say think about it before taking that step. The same way one would think about letting a roommate into their home or getting married. It's an important decision and one that should be made with some thoughtful consideration. I never expected the backlash I've gotten or the sometimes hateful comments I've received! It's pretty crazy. I just take it with a grain of salt.
I think some people lash out online because they feel that if anyone says anything they disagree with, that person has to be silenced. Last time I checked, that's not how it's supposed to work. I've read plenty of things online that I totally do not agree with. I just let the things I've read go and I walk away.
Maybe that would be good advice for anyone thinking of saying something nasty online, especially if you cannot go back later and delete it or change what you've said. It might be better to walk away, take some deep breaths, think about it, and come back later. I've done that and have been glad that I didn't respond in a rash way to some of the things I've read!
© 2018 KathyH