Faceless mobs, wearing anonymity like armor, attacking online in the darkness of night…

The way we imagine online harassment only sometimes matches reality.

While “trolls” do in fact often strike at night, the ability to be anonymous on the Internet may not be as tied to online harassment as people typically think. There is little evidence that unmasking people and making them use “real names” in online spaces significantly curbs attacks.

On the contrary, removing anonymity can make platforms less safe for vulnerable people, like domestic violence survivors or persecuted minorities to use.

54% of US adults surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2017, who reported experiencing online harassment, said that either someone unknown or a stranger was behind the latest incident. But many others actually knew their harassers: they were acquaintances (26%), friends (18%) and family members (11%).

Other studies show that cyber-bullied children and teenagers experience offline harassment too.

Even when mobs of people engage in collective online aggression, research indicates that some of the worst aggressors use their own names to gain influence.

There are of course many cases in which anonymity facilitates abuse, creating a “smoke screen” that allows online harassment to continue or amplify. But if anonymity isn’t the driving force behind online harassment, then enforcing the use of real names won’t solve the problem.

Nathan Matias is a researcher of online safety and fairness at M.I.T. and Princeton University who is publicly compiling research and testing a variety of comment moderation techniques as part of a fact-based approach to improving online community management.

 J. Nathan Matias
J. Nathan Matias in 2017. Photo by Joi Ito (CC BY 2.0)

“Conflict, harassment and discrimination are social and cultural problems, not just online community problems,” says Matias. The preliminary results of one study that Matias and his colleagues conducted on Reddit found that clearly posting rules for comments at the top of a r/science “subreddit” with 14-million pseudonymous subscribers increased compliance by first-time commenters from 75% to 82%.

To end online harassment, we need to invest in a better understanding of the root causes of abuse as well as research to evaluate solutions. In a world where online life is real life, both face to face and on-screen problems would benefit from the same approach: changing social norms.

Further reading:

The Real Name Fallacy, J. Nathan Matias, 2017