Below: An unplanned exchange found on a baseball team fan site, 2023.
In this chapter’s readings and media, you will see a scientific study about the Online Disinhibition Effect, which explains how a person’s social behavior can be different when posting online anonymously.
When you consider the negative impact of trolling, you may be wondering why there isn’t a global initiative to eliminate anonymous communication all together? Should the social media companies be held accountable?
On the other side of the issue, you will examine the social and political benefits to being anonymous. There is a strong case to suggest that, without anonymity, there would be a chilling effect on the expression of free speech which, as we have become accustomed to, is believed to be a cornerstone of democracy. In fact, the Chinese government now requires top influencers on Weibo to use their real names to monitor who is posting “controversial” content.
Connected to all of this is the western cultural expectation of free speech – a right stipulated in the U.S. Constitution, though often misinterpreted within the context of corporate control of speech on their platforms.
Pseudonym – A username that is not the user’s actual identity.
What should you be focusing on?
Your objectives in this module are:
- Construct an argument both for and against online anonymity.
- Evaluate the risks and tradeoffs in allowing or disallowing anonymity as a feature in your app or story ideas.
Readings & Media
Thematic narrative in this chapter
In the following readings and media, the authors will present the following themes:
- People behave differently when they know they are anonymous – mostly negatively or in anti-social ways.
- The power of SM to inflict suffering and to cast hate upon individuals and groups causes tension against the principles of free speech.
- Anonymity provides protection for political dissenters and oppressed groups to organize and communicate safely.
Required Article: Council on Foreign Relations – “Hate Speech on Social Media: Global Comparisons” by Zachary Laub, June 7, 2019 (8 pages)
This article provides an analysis of the relationship between hate speech on social media and hate crimes on a global scale. Worth noting are the following statements:
- “The same technology that allows social media to galvanize democracy activists can be used by hate groups seeking to organize and recruit.”
- “Users’ experiences online are mediated by algorithms designed to maximize their engagement, which often inadvertently promote extreme content…. ‘YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century,’ writes sociologist Zeynep Tufekci.”
- “The 1996 law exempts tech platforms from liability for actionable speech by their users. Magazines and television networks, for example, can be sued for publishing defamatory information they know to be false; social media platforms cannot be found similarly liable for content they host.”
Required Article: The Online Disinhibition Effect
John Suler’s research article “The Online Disinhibition Effect” describes the six psychological factors that contribute to trolling behavior. Download PDF: “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” (6 pages)
Required Article: Anonymity in social media
Laura Rogal’s “Anonymity in Social Media” summarizes the forces intertwined within the issue of anonymous / pseudonymous communication in SM. Skip the section on Copyright. Focus on section II: “History of Right to Free Speech and Speaking Anonymously” on pages 3-6 of the PDF and the end conclusion on page 17. Download PDF: “Anonymity in Social Media.”
Required Business policy: The value of anonymity
Whisper app: Whisper allows users to post their intimate feelings with total anonymity. Here are their community guidelines with references to their philosophy of anonymity. In this Huffington Post article, we see how the anonymity factor has served as a channel for expression: “LGBT Youths With Unsupportive Parents Sound Off Anonymously On Whisper App” by Curtis M. Wong Senior Editor, HuffPost Queer Voices. Retrieved December 18, 2016.
Sidechat is an anonymous communication app designed for college audiences. It is considered to be an iteration of the first such app called Yik Yak, which experienced some troublesome user experience. Read Sidechat’s Community Guidelines. For further analysis: “Sidechat Wants to Be College Students’ Main Chat: The quiet rollout of Sidechat, a new anonymous-posting platform, is being met with skepticism from college students, many of whom are all too familiar with the pitfalls of similar apps like Yik Yak.”
Required Poll: “When it comes to people’s identity on social media, … what you think should happen?” YouGov informal poll of 3,400+ adults, July, 2021
What do you suppose are the results for the poll question above? After you read the results, go to the Twitter post from YouGov and read the comments. Take into consideration that Twitter users do not represent anything or anyone else other than Twitter users, so consider this to be a trend and not necessarily scientific.
Required Article: “No, Getting Rid Of Anonymity Will Not Fix Social Media; It Will Cause More Problems” Mon, Feb 1st, 2021 – by Mike Masnick.
Note that TechDirt is not a scholarly resource, though the writers are consistently authoritative. Articles are well-cited, though the writing style is often sarcastic and can sometimes contain foul language. This article covers a lot of historical territory on this issue. Skim through the major points that pertain to the argument against requiring name disclosure.
Optional: Supplemental resources that are relevant to anonymity
“Should anonymous social media accounts be banned?” British Labour MP Jess Phillips and tech author Jamie Bartlett conduct an online debate about online anonymity which includes references to the threats of violence sent through social media to women when they speak out.
“Kai Visits the Dark Web” Kai Rysdall of NPR’s Marketplace plunges into the Dark Web “live” with cybersecurity researcher Stephen Cobb. They discuss how the TOR browser works, what they find, and how even in the marketplace of illegal goods and services, there are familiar instruments being used to build and sustain consumer trust and market share.
“Turkey Passes Law Extending Sweeping Powers Over Social Media” – This article describes how the authoritarian government of Turkey is striving to control social media content and data about its users.
An example of anonymity: the U.S. State Department’s “Dissent Channel” which is an anonymous channel for its members to voice their concerns without fear of retribution.
“How China has censored words relating to the Tiananmen Square anniversary” – An example of how people are still able to express themselves in SM about the Tiananmen Square incident despite censorship.
“Court Says Police Chief’s Social Media Policy Violated The First Amendment” – An example of how First Amendment rights intersect with the rights of police officers’ rights to free speech on SM. Curated by James Gambone (COMM601 WN17).