Nearly 40 percent of internet users have experienced online harassment in some way. Half of those didn’t know the true identity of the perpetrator.
When Amanda Todd met an anonymous man on Facebook, she thought she was creating a new friendship. The stranger gave her compliments and told her she was beautiful. So when the man asked her one night to show her bare chest through her computer’s webcam, she thought nothing of the incident. She trusted him.
A year later, Amanda’s life had become a nightmare, thanks to that anonymous man. After she refused to give him more of a “show,” the man began sending a screenshot of her naked breasts to her classmates. Her peers ridiculed her, considering Amanda an outcast. She turned to drugs, alcohol, and cutting herself to try to deal with the pain. Despite posting a video on YouTube desperately asking for help, Amanda died by suicide in her home on October 10, 2012. She was only 15 years old.
For some, online anonymity provides a safe place to express ideas and beliefs without fear of wrath from others. Teachers can speak about political views without backlash from students. Lawyers can express their sexual orientations, knowing future clients won’t judge them on this basis. Victims of sexual assault can even be protected, knowing their perpetrators can’t track them down online.
But in many cases like Amanda’s, online anonymity takes a turn for the worse. According to a 2014 survey by Pew Research Center, 40 percent of Internet users have personally experienced online harassment. Of those who were harassed, half did not know the real identity of their perpetrator.
Attacking the problem
WTOP is a radio station serving the Washington D.C. area by sharing the latest stories about what’s happening in the world. Though they deliver most news over the radio, WTOP’s website frequently publishes stories online, as well.
The station covers politics, protests, and crime—topics that often draw controversy.
Throughout the course of 2016, readers on WTOP’s website became increasingly barbaric in the site’s comment sections. Protected by usernames that concealed true identities, users left hateful comments that criticized others based on things like religion and race.
Julia Ziegler, WTOP’s news director, knew something had to change. The station’s staff includes reporters of diverse ethnicities, beliefs, and genders. These reporters are responsible for monitoring the comment sections of the website, meaning they had to read those insulting comments. Every day.
At first, WTOP chose to limit commenting to only those from Facebook users, Julia says. This way, rather than having commenters hide behind anonymous usernames, which could previously be created through their site, their words would be linked to a name and a face. However, the malicious comments continued. Some readers created fake Facebook accounts, covering their true identities with pseudonyms. They could comment without taking responsibility for their rancorous words.
Because of the continuous offensive comments, Julia and her staff decided to completely remove the option for readers to comment on WTOP’s website.
According to a 2013 study by Pew Research Center, 25 percent of Internet users have posted comments without revealing who they are.
Comment sections can be beneficial. Readers and listeners have a quick way to express feelings, ask questions, and have meaningful discussions. But commenters might also try to start fights with the original creator of the work or with fellow commenters.
Many media outlets, including CNN and NPR, have taken steps similar to WTOP. Even some YouTube stars, like video game enthusiast Felix Kjellberg, known as PewDiePie, have disabled comments on their videos.
Choosing whether to disable commenting can be tough, says Julia. For the journalism industry, which is entirely based on freedom of speech, disabling the ability to respond can appear as a paradox.
But for Julia and WTOP, along with other publications that have removed comment sections, the users were doing more bad than good.
Understanding the motive
A loser. That’s how Matt Saccaro describes his middle school self.
Matt was awkward, shy, and a regular bullying target at school. At home, he was one of five children fighting for his parents’ attention. So when Matt finally received his first computer in the eighth grade, he found an opportunity to get the attention he’d been yearning for.
It all started when Matt joined a forum board about World of Warcraft. As he scrolled through the messages, he was enchanted by the “celebrities” who created entertaining posts and received thousands of comments on their threads.
Matt tried to be like them, but he failed. No one paid attention to his posts in the forum board. Feeling defeated, Matt noticed the internet trolls: the ones who posted crude, obscene messages to attract attention.
Rather than imitating the famed users, Matt began to copy the trolls. He wrote bold, vulgar messages, asking for trouble. In one particular instance, Matt created a thread about fascism in America to stir up users. During a time when many were worried about George Bush’s expansion of presidential powers, many became irate after seeing the post—especially when Matt claimed Democrats and liberals should be considered enemies.
He was finally attracting comments from hundreds of users, even though they were often scornful and angry.
Matt felt no remorse for his actions. Instead, he felt a new sense of confidence.
The introverted and unpopular teen was suddenly in the spotlight. But rather than in the school hallways, it was in his basement, glowing in the light of his computer’s screen.
Anonymity lets people craft an online character that can be significantly different from their actual personality. Kip Williams, a psychology professor at Purdue University, says those who might not have a voice in real life sometimes make their words have an impact in cyberspace.
Someone who is timid when encountering others in real life can become vocal in online chat rooms. A normally kind person can be ruthless on social media.
As Shaheen Shariff, professor of integrated studies at McGill University explains, the protection of a pseudonym allows people to easily throw out insults and discriminatory comments without taking responsibility for their words.
Some people, especially the trolls Matt looked up to, simply like to stir up trouble. Others might feel marginalized and are often targets of jokes in real life, says Williams.
But whatever the reason, anonymous Internet users continue to wreak havoc on others, causing drops of self-confidence, psychological pain, and in some cases such as Amanda’s, more severe outcomes such as suicide.