A simple difference in opinion in the comments beneath a YouTube video can quickly turn to a firestorm of personal attacks — all because of anonymity.
Blog and website administrators often deal with personal, crude attacks from nobodies — nameless users who create anonymous accounts with no pictures attached, often simply to make random personal attacks.
“Why is it necessary to have hate-Tumblrs or hate-Twitters?” Celeste Godfrey,19, asked of a phenomenon she said she witnesses too often.
A well-known case of horrid comments online are the racist tweets that appeared shortly after the movie premier of “The Hunger Games.” Several tweeters explained they pictured Rue as an innocent little girl, but they felt she lost that look with African-American actress Amanda Stenberg. One even tweeted he wasn’t as sad when Rue died because she was black.
A thin layer of protection
“We live in a culture where good programming is where there’s conflict,” said BYU social psychologist Robert Ridge, Ph.D. “So rather than having civil discourse, which is boring, but polite, we have all these reality shows where you’ve just got people yelling at each other.”
Ridge said the anonymity of the Internet creates a crowd-like environment in which individuals may lose sight of their own identity. They feel nobody can see their actions, safe behind the thin layer of glass in their computer monitor.
“If you’re reading comments and seeing what people are saying, a lot of those are rude, discourteous, vulgar, obscene and seeing that establishes that this is a place where a person could do that if they wanted to,” Ridge explained.
Ridge compared situations with limited anonymity, like Twitter, to athletes in televised games accustomed to the cameras surrounding them.
“You don’t even think that all these eyes are on you anymore,” said Ridge, concerning racist tweets. “So it could be in the Twitter universe or something where they’re identifiable. It could be in that universe so long they’ve just sort of lost sight of the fact that they’re identifiable and people are watching.”
“There’s some process by which we’re going to say ‘we trust that you are who you are,’ but even in the case of a driver’s license or passport or student ID it’s certainly not foolproof,” said BYU computer scientist Charles Knutson, Ph.D. “If you walk in with a birth certificate, you’re just a guy with a piece of paper from twenty years ago, but you can say ‘that’s me.'”
Knutson said he believes the problem with online anonymity is rooted in the societal system of identity, not in the Internet itself, though he admits the Internet can take those problems and accentuate them.
In the technological world, IP addresses can be tracked, but they can also be shared, re-used or re-assigned by Internet service providers. Even if a hardware address from a Wi-Fi or Internet adapter is used in the trace, it’s difficult to prove who typed something.
“You can’t prove that I am who I say I am by just standing on the street corner talking to me,” Knutson said. “So how are you then going to take the next step and say I am who I am when I’m online? And if you think about it, it’s just a hard problem, unless you could implant a chip under the skin of a baby.”
A return to courtesy
Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman compared the Internet anonymity to the Wizard of Oz: “You’re very powerful when you’re behind a curtain.”
“If something is anonymous, it is empty; it doesn’t hold any weight. If there’s not a face to a picture, it’s not worthy of acknowledgement,” said Gottsman, who runs the Protocol School of Texas, a nationally recognized professional etiquette school based in San Antonio.
Etiquette was used for years to keep human relationships running smoothly, even if good manners have been all but abandoned on the Internet. Even though manners do evolve, to some extent, with time (it was considered perfectly fine, for example, to eat dinner with one’s fingers in the Middle Ages), Gottsman said some things never change.
“Racial comments, vulgar jokes, anything that can defame another human being, are not appropriate,” Gottsman said.
Gottsman said she believes the discourtesy abounding online is more than just de-individuation — she sees dehumanization in the way Internet users treat each other.
“They need to realize they’re talking about another human being,” Gottsman said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re attacking someone, whether they’re an adult or a child. It’s still uncivil, it’s uncivilized.”