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Anonymity, Trolls, and Doxing

There are many types of communities that exist within our society and the emergence of the internet has allowed for these communities to thrive, in a virtual setting. With the help of social networking sites, individuals can now efficiently connect with others in their respective social groups. Culturally, the most vital aspect of the internet is that it births, nurtures and strengthens virtual and real-life communities as beliefs and ideas are shared, negotiated and maintained via cyberspace. While sites like Facebook and Instagram allow individuals to embrace their transparent identity when communicating with others, sites like Reddit and 4chan embrace the practice of anonymity, creating a massive online culture of concealed identities.

Anonymity and the Disinhibition Effect

Why would anyone condemn their true identity and pick up an anonymous one? The answer is simple – because you can say anything you want online without having to face any real repercussions. When it comes to online anonymity, people suddenly find a sense of courage to say things that they would never say out loud in a room full of people. This shift in behavior caused by the shield of the internet can be better understood when looking at Erving Goffman’s performance theory and Marshal McLuhan’s “medium is the message” phrase. With different forms and uses of media, the “stage” in which we perform our identity changes and as a result social behaviors are altered and virtual cultures, such as anonymity, emerge. In the context of online anonymity, the user performs wearing a full body costume, free to say or do whatever he or she desires. 

According to psychologist John Suler, the “Online Disinhibition Effect” is what prompts and encourages people to take up anonymous identities. It is important to note that Suler divides the disinhibition effect into two distinct categories: “benign disinhibition” and “toxic disinhibition”.

On the benign side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes, in toxic disinhibition, it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.

On the positive side, disinhibition gives people the chance to be expressive and share their innermost feelings with others who can either relate or offer encouraging advice. In a strange way, online disinhibition allows the internet to function like a confessional booth. Unfortunately, more often than not, the disinhibition effect creates a poisonous environment within virtual communities as people abuse their anonymity to hurt others by saying hateful things and posting offensive content.

Here is a TEDTalks of Christopher Poole, founder of 4chan, making a case for online anonymity.

Trolls

At the core of toxic disinhibition is trolling. “Troll” is a term used to define anonymous internet users who typically go to places like online forums to disrupt virtual communities and wreak havoc by deliberately harassing its members and instigating heated arguments.

In “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community”, Judith Donath evaluates the effect that trolls can have on communities within the boundaries of cyberspace.

Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group’s common interests and concerns…Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community.

troll-infographic-large

Within the world of internet trolls, there are many different types relative to their trolling personalities and methods of annoying people (Ex: Self-feeding trolls, grammar trolls, spoiler trolls etc.). The one thing that all trolls have in common is their end goal, which is to provoke.

In an interesting and rare interview, Whitney Phillips uncovers some of the true motives and sociopathic tendencies of a typical troll. When “Paulie Socash” was asked why he trolls, he replied: “For the lulz.  Because people who are overly earnest and serious online deserve and need a corrective.  I started because there was no way to have rational conversations with some people and because I like to debate things.

Socash also claims that he feels good when he’s successfully executed his troll, saying:“You are drawing attention to some other person’s failings.  For me the goal isn’t the individual, though, it is the overall public reaction.  It’s about controlling the outcome and the presentation of an event.

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The increasing popularity of harmful trolling raises a serious issue within the realm of cyberculture because it taints carefully constructed online communities and undermines the virtues of anonymity.

The best way to get rid of troll is by ignoring them rather than engaging them, which is how they get stronger. However, ignoring trolls is easier said than done. For those who do not have the willpower to ignore trolls and believe that justice must be served, I suppose there is another option – Doxing.

What is Doxing?

Doxing, deriving from the phrase “document tracing”, is a practice of publicly outing anonymous internet users, without consent, by gathering readily available information on the internet such as one’s email address, name, birthday etc. The practice of doxing is certainly a topic of ethical debate, but surprisingly enough it is legal as long as the information was not obtained through illegal methods or wrongfully used such as to steal money. Doxing is frequently viewed as a malicious act and related to instances of individuals seeking some sort of vengeance. In fact, doxing was popularized by the hacking group “Anonymous” for it is the most common tactic they use when targeting their victims.

At the center of the internet’s most epic doxing of trolls is Adrian Chen’s unmasking of Reddit’s Violentacrez in October 2012. Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez of Reddit, was one of the internet’s biggest trolls. He created many subreddits that enraged people, the most infamous being “Jailbait” where people shared secretly taken photos of young teenage girls. Despite the fact that Brutsch went against the guidelines of “Reddiquette”, Violentacrez was one of Reddit’s most valued member for the amount of traffic he brought to the website and was even awarded by Reddit. Using doxing, Adrian Chen outed Violentacrez on Gawker and as a result Michael Brutsch was fired from his job. In this case of anonymity, Brutsch’s online actions had real life impacts.

In this CNN interview with Brutsch, he denies that his actions as a troll is a reflection of who he is as a person.

Based on Suler’s online disinhibition effect, this would be a case of “disassociate anonymity”.

When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn’t have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviors “aren’t me at all”.

With many starting to embrace the methods of doxing, such as Predditors, the war against trolls continues. The emergence of doxing proves a larger point: personal information is readily accessible by anyone on the internet and anonymous users, troll or not, may not be as anonymous as they think.

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