Online anonymity form of deindividuation

Some people find courage from a bottle, for others it can come from having anonymity on the Internet.

For years online commentators – using pseudonyms – have found an available public forum on media websites for stating their opinions and beliefs on a variety of topics. But, often times, many also use this as an opportunity to publicly hurl insults and other hateful comments at others.

The Chatham Daily News interviewed Dr. James Olson, a social psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, about the proliferation of negativity and uncivilized behaviour by many anonymous online commentators.

Olson noted in social psychology there is a term called “deindividuation,” which is a feeling that people can't identify you.

He said it happens under a variety of conditions, including when people are in large groups or wearing a costume or uniform that makes it difficult for them to be recognized among other people.

“And it happens on the Internet,” he added.

“Deindividuation actually does make people less likely to follow norms,” Olson said. “They're less likely to conform to the expected way of behaviour.

“So, therefore they are more willing to express opinions that might be politically incorrect, and more likely to make aggressive, insulting comments then they would (directly to someone),” he added.

Olson believes people who prefer to remain anonymous while commenting on public media websites do so because they know others would be angered by their position on an issue or the type of comments they make.

Ironically, he added these people don't want to be identified so they can avoid being harassed for expressing their opinion.

University of Houston assistant professor Arthur D. Santana has published a study titled: “Virtuous or Vitriolic: The Effect of Anonymity on Civility in Online Reader Newspaper Reader Comment Boards,” which compared the tones of online comments posted by anonymous and non-anonymous users following online newspaper stories on U.S. media websites.

According to an article about this study on the University of Houston website, Santana found 53.3% of anonymous comments included vulgar, racist, profane or hateful language, whereas 28.7% of non-anonymous comments were deemed to be uncivil.

Santana also observed non-anonymous commentators were nearly three times as likely to post civil comments.

He noted in the university website story that a benefit of online anonymity is is that it allows people to express their views, uninhibited, especially if it is not popular.

“It's when commenting descends into hateful language, threats or racism that the conversation breaks down and any benefits of constructive dialogue goes away,” Santana stated.

“Incivility serves as a barrier,” he said. “People don’t want to enter the fray when there are a bunch of bullies in the room.

“It’s possible to be forceful, robust and emotional in your argument, but when even a small minority of people resort to hateful or even intimidating language, others are reluctant to join a conversation,” Santana added.

He also pointed out nearly half of the largest 137 U.S. newspapers have opted to not allow anonymity in their comment forums, and nearly 10% don't have the forums.

Although Canadians enjoy freedom of speech, people can be the target of criticism if their comments are deemed to not be politically correct.

“There is no question political correctness is one of the kind of pressures that people feel in expressing their opinions,” Olson said.

He said people really do want to believe that their position is correct, that their opinion on an issue or belief about a person is accurate.

“One way of making yourself believe that you are correct is by convincing other people of your position,” Olson said.

Another aspect of this issue that intrigues Olson are the virtual groups that have formed among online commentators.

“It's an entirely new phenomenon these virtual groups,” he said, adding there's not a full understanding in his field of how they operate.

Being a Toronto Raptors basketball fan, Olson said he occasionally goes to some websites devoted to the Canadian NBA team.

He noted one site has the same people constantly commenting.

“And they insult one another and they continue to come back and to comment,” Olson said.

He said these type of online virtual groups didn't exist 20 years ago, which offers the ability to respond immediately.

“Of course, when you do things immediately, you don't think them over very carefully,” Olson said. “And you don't think to yourself: 'Oh wait a minute, maybe I shouldn't say that?'” 

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