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The connection between online anonymity and civility

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by Jennifer Bridges  @JenBridgesRD

Two men in business suit handshaking with masks on

Imagine a stranger calling a dead 15-year-old girl a “slut” on her Facebook memorial page. While disgusting behavior like this was once unimaginable, it’s becoming more common. In fact, according to psychologist Robert Sutton, “disrespectful, demeaning, and downright mean-spirited behavior is worse than ever.” This is especially true of online discourse. But what is it about the Internet that makes people feel comfortable saying something online that they’d hesitate to say to someone’s face?

The answer lies in the Internet’s anonymity. When we are invisible to the person we are communicating with, we lose our natural inhibitions and let our baser selves run free. This phenomenon is called the online disinhibition effect.

The online disinhibition effect 

Described in an article by Stanford psychology professor John Suler in 2004, the online disinhibition effect can cause people to act out in either a benign manner, wherein they overshare their personal information, or in a toxic manner, wherein they become abusive or threatening. This toxic reaction helps explain the obnoxious behavior of online trolls and cyberbullies.

“When people choose to be anonymous, hide behind the screen, they become bolder and meaner than they would be to someone in real life, or even with their ‘real name.’”—Sue Scheff, founder of helpyourteens.com and author of Shame Nation

According to Dr. Suler, there are several elements of online interactions that contribute to the disinhibition effect, including the following:

  • Dissociative anonymity (“You don’t know me”)—On the Internet, you can communicate completely anonymously, and this makes you feel protected. This means you don’t have any responsibility for your behavior and can separate your online identity from your offline one. 
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  • Invisibility (“You can’t see me”)—When you are physically invisible to the person you are communicating with, you don’t have to worry about your tone of voice or your body language. This lets you lower your inhibitions and be whoever you want to be in a way that is impossible in face-to-face interactions.
  • Solipsistic Introjection (“It’s all in my head”)—When you don’t have any physical cues associated with the person you’re communicating with, the other person becomes just a voice in your head. As such, the people in your online conversations merely become characters in your imagination, formed by your own personal history and expectations. You might also “hear” his or her voice as your own, which makes you feel more comfortable with the other person and further lowers your inhibitions.

“In the real world people subconsciously monitor the behaviour of others around them and adapt their own behaviour accordingly … Online we do not have such feedback mechanisms.”—Psychologist Graham Jones

Don’t fall into the trap of behaving badly online

According to the Civility in America report by Weber Shandwick, 93% of Americans think incivility is a problem, and 68% believe it is a “major” problem. Whatever, you do, don’t let yourself contribute to it.

But, you’re not one of those obnoxious Internet trolls, so why should you worry?

According to research by Stanford University, it’s all too easy for normal, everyday people to slip into troll-like behavior online. In fact, nearly one-third of Americans admit to having been cruel to a stranger on the Internet. 

“You might think that there is a minority of sociopaths online, which we call trolls, who are doing all this harm. What we actually find in our work is that ordinary people, just like you and me, can engage in such antisocial behavior. For a specific period of time, you can actually become a troll. And that’s surprising.” Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, professor at Cornell University’s Department of Information Science

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And incivility on the Internet can have serious consequences on a person’s online reputation, which can affect his or her offline life. For example, if the wrong people find evidence of your bad behavior while googling your name, you could lose that new job or promotion, admittance into your first-choice school, or a chance to date your ideal romantic partner.

Even if you post comments under a fake name, your anonymity can be compromised if someone is willing to put some effort into it. This means that if you wrote something terrible, there is always a chance that it can come back to haunt you.

To ensure that your online behavior remains above reproach, you should follow these tips whenever you are on the Internet:

  • Take a 5-minute pause before you post any comment: The faster you react, the less thoughtful your comment will be. By taking a few minutes to review your comments, you can ensure that you are not reacting emotionally and are engaging in a polite and constructive way.
  • Don’t comment on topics that people tend to be passionate about: You aren’t going to change anyone’s mind about politics or religion, so don’t waste your time trying. All you’ll end up doing is making people mad and starting fights that you could’ve avoided.
  • Don’t respond to insults or hateful language: Why spend the emotional energy engage with a troll when you could be living your life? Move on, and find a more positive conversation to join. 


Whether you are worried about what might happen if you act discourteously online, or you are already dealing with reputation damage from posting rude comments on the Internet, the first step is to find out what your options are. To learn more, give ReputationDefender a call. We offer free consultations 24/7 to discuss your unique situation.