Tech, Now + Beyond

Troll culture is more than just a symptom of anonymity

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, ending anonymity may not end cyberbullying

Internet interactions often feel less personal than offline interactions, and many people say things online that they would never say in person. It’s true — we’ve all done it. But as a logical extension of this idea, people claim that internet anonymity enables cyberbullying. Here at The Tempest we’ve even tackled this idea, with a list of anonymous apps and their benefits and downsides.

Contrary to popular opinion, though, recent research by the University of Zurich shows that most people who post online hate tend to do so with their full name attached. This calls into question all our prevailing wisdom about online interactions, and the efforts of major platforms such as Google to prevent pseudonyms and anonymous posters.

To study this effect, researchers looked at data from 2010 to 2013 on one website: a German petitions website called Open Petition, which allows users to comment on petitions either with their name or anonymously. The study was fairly comprehensive, looking at more than 500,000 comments, and found that less than a third of commenters posted anonymously, and that the worst online hate was posted with names instead of anonymously.

Researchers have several theories as to why the data they found seems to contradict popular logic. When we picture bullying situations, we most often picture personal attacks. However, observations from the study suggest that people who post nasty things online tend to do so because they are ardently convinced of their beliefs and think that they are upholding something that is morally right. If someone is against immigration, they may post disparaging comments on a pro-immigration petition not because they know anyone who is involved, but because they are against the idea of immigrants entering their country. If someone stands up for a strongly held belief, they usually want credit for doing so, and posting anonymously denies them the opportunity to get that credit.

There is also a dangerous feedback loop that can develop around non-anonymous posting. If bullies post online using their full name, people who know them and agree may be more likely to repost or like or share the initial post, spreading vicious sentiments. Online harassers can also gain followers who may not know them offline because their name makes them recognizable. This encourages further behavior. If users post anonymously there is no chance for the posts to be spread because of the user’s reputation.

The type of online scenario that the research team looked at was a “firestorm” scenario, where many cyberbullies attack one person. In this type of a situation researchers concluded that the harassers did not fear legal retaliation because it would be extraordinarily hard to sue all of the individuals involved in the bullying or harassment, and unlikely for any individual poster that they would be singled out from the others. This is another frightening reality of cyberbullies working in groups.

Because of these benefits of linking what you post to your name, it will be difficult to decrease cyberbullying by banning anonymous posting. In fact, if all anonymous contributions were banned, cyberbullying may actually increase.

This study packs in a whole bunch of bad news about how cyberbullies defy the collective perception of how we think they should act. But there is a slight glimmer of hope. As we learn more about the psychology of digital harassment, the researchers hope that this knowledge will help establish “digital norm enforcement.” This means that the data that they collect may help law enforcers be more and more informed on how to prevent online abuse.

The group also raises other interesting questions such as “To what proportion does firestorm-like outrage reflect genuine public opinion?” As society becomes more and more digital and digital society grows, hopefully further research can clarify questions like this.