Online Anonymity can bring out the worst in people

During my teenage years, revealing your identity online was just not the done thing, and especially socially unacceptable for females.

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At that time most online interaction took place in forums or via instant messaging apps, such as MSN and Yahoo. People would typically use nicknames to interact online.

Then came Facebook and Flickr, followed by Instagram and Twitter. Social networks have gained a great amount of popularity, in the UAE and worldwide.

Many people who have moved to social media networks have brought with them the practice of maintaining online anonymity.

And many have even created more than one account on the same social media website. A new study by Performix Middle East and North Africa indicates that 61 per cent of social media users in the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have more than one account on the same site.

But what could possibly be the reason to have multiple identities online? This phenomenon needs to be studied in depth, both psychologically and socially. Psychologists suggest that this practice could be due to a range of reasons. Users may fear facing society, or being rejected by other people because of their personalities or opinions, or getting into trouble with their families or employers or co-workers due to their online activities.

Some conservative parents still don't allow their daughters to communicate with men outside the family. Some workplaces don't allow their employees to discuss certain issues online.

In the West there has been a continuing debate surrounding online anonymity, but in this region the idea has been widely accepted and embraced for decades.

In the West, online anonymity, particularly on social media, has long fuelled some social and political conflicts, and now that phenomenon is coming to this region, as society develops.

Many studies have linked the relative anonymity of internet commenting, and the lack of social cues inherent in online communication, with a rise in cyber bullying via social media.

"Trolling" is also on the rise in the region, as those who cannot disclose their hideous thoughts in real life and are too afraid to show their faces to the targeted person use social media to express themselves.

A leading neurologist, Baroness Susan Greenfield of Oxford University, has suggested that the absence of body language in anonymous online communication is giving people the ability to express "the worst side of human nature".

She told The Telegraph that face-to-face human interaction includes "biological handbrake" signals - eye contact, body language, facial expression and voice tone. Without these, some internet users gradually develop the confidence and authority to reveal their thoughts to others.

That can mean, she said, that "we have the problem of the 'monstrous' things people are saying online, when they have the anonymity of the blogosphere."

I often see prominent Twitter users complain of being targeted anonymously. Discussing controversial social or political issues on social media can attract many trolls, some of them defaming people or even making threats of physical attacks. Psychologists warn that trolls can generate low self-esteem and depression in their victims.

Trolls can also misuse social networks to spread false information and rumours about others, or to publish inappropriate material - all while hiding behind their screens. Some men - even married men - use Twitter, for example, to stalk or sexually harass women. Experts say surreptitious use of social media has given rise to "cyber infidelity" that has led to many marital disputes, and some divorces.

In all these types of abuses, trolls can get away with what they do, from defamation and cheating to inducing hate, only because they have anonymity online.

Many media sites are moving to eliminate anonymous comments and to require approval or moderation at some level. But it is much more difficult to control social- media communication. How can we deal with this?

I myself have received many inappropriate Twitter comments, mostly from unknown users. Before I respond in anger, I take a breath and try to imagine myself in a room with the other person, and what it would feel like to respond face to face. And so I wait until I'm calm, and then reply, or just simply ignore their comments.

We need to move away from anonymity in our social media interactions. Being more open about who we are could make us more self-conscious, and help us all maintain our integrity online.
Online Anonymity can bring out the worst in people Online Anonymity can bring out the worst in people Reviewed by Kanthala Raghu on September 10, 2013 Rating: 5

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