Forget anonymity: Internet trolls are more abusive when using their real names, study finds

It turns out those who hide behind screen names aren't necessarily the most abusive kind of Internet trolls, according to a new study. Nico De Pasquale Photography/Flickr

Many have blamed the ability to remain anonymous for social media’s widespread bullying problems. But it turns out those who hide behind screen names aren’t necessarily the most abusive kind of Internet trolls, according to a new study.

Lea Stahel, a sociology researcher at the University of Zurich, and a team of researchers set out to find evidence that online anonymity encouraged the kind of abusive behaviour we often see during social media “firestorms” – when a group of people gang up and hurl hundreds of rude, vulgar and sometimes violent remarks at their targets.

READ MORE: ‘Ghostbusters’ star Leslie Jones highlights rampant racist abuse on Twitter

Take for example the racist abuse Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones recently experienced on Twitter, or the hateful messages sent to female gamers during the “Gamergate” scandal.

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Researchers looked at 532,197 comments on about 1,600 online petitions where commentators could choose to use their real names or remain anonymous.

The researchers found commentators that used the most abusive language were more likely to use real names as opposed to anonymous screen names. According to the study, less than one third of commentators used anonymous names.

However, the study suggests using abusive language is more common when commentators are particularly passionate about a certain political or cultural issue.

“We proposed and demonstrated that one major motivation for online aggression in social media is the enforcement of social norms – for example, the struggle for social justice by insulting greedy managers and politicians, or the angst about foreign infiltration by hate speeches against migrants,” read the study.

Researchers said it appeared that commentators found no reason to use a fake name or screen name if they wanted to stand up for what they believe in, or make a strong point.

READ MORE: Here is the EU’s ‘code of conduct’ Facebook and Twitter will use to combat hate speech online

The study pointed out that while there have previously been calls for social media giants like Facebook and Google to force people to use their real names to crack down on bullying, those polices do not necessarily prevent online aggression in social media.

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For example, in an effort to improve YouTube’s troll-ridden comments section, Google changed the video platform to a comments system powered by Google+ in November 2013. This ensured that any user commenting on a YouTube video posted under their name, instead of a pseudonym.

Google changed that policy, allowing users to use anonymous screen names again, in 2014.

Facebook also forces users to use their “authentic identities” on the site; however, trolling and bullying is still quite common.

This isn’t the first study to dispel assumptions about bullying on social media sites.

For example, a study published in May showed that women themselves were responsible for half of the misogynistic comments made on social media. Over 200,000 aggressive tweets using the same terms were sent to 80,000 people. But here’s the twist – the study found 50 per cent of those aggressive tweets were sent by female users.

READ MORE: Half of misogynistic tweets are sent by women, study shows

The fact that women often face abuse online is nothing new – an Australian report published in March found that nearly half of women have experienced harassment online; a Pew Research study found that number to be even higher at 73 per cent. But a lot of the stories surrounding that abuse have focused on men harassing women.


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