Unlike the real world, anonymity is easily attainable in cyberspace. The internet allows an individual to create a concealed identity and profit from its perceived benefits. Driven by a variety of motives, people use anonymity to fulfill personal goals, express themselves freely and behave antisocially with no fear of the consequences.
While the internet can benefit humankind, it is also an incubator for toxicity. Anonymity in digital spaces can lead to disinhibition and deindividuation—a state where people act uncharacteristically in groups and engage in impulsive and sometimes aggressive acts since they cannot be personally identified. For instance, people may write more aggressive blog posts anonymously in comparison to those who could be easily identified.
Given that such concerning behavior is increasingly common, it is crucial to understand the inherent traits and motivations that propel individuals toward anonymous digital spaces.
The Dual Motivations For Online Anonymity
A 2023 study identified two motivations underlying the desire to stay anonymous in online social interactions:
- Self-expression. Individuals seek anonymity to express aspects of themselves that they would otherwise not feel comfortable sharing. Self-disclosure also becomes easier due to the reduced threat of negative outcomes and social evaluation.
- Toxic behavior. Individuals are motivated to use the cloak of anonymity to walk away scot-free after behaving nefariously toward others. Researchers found that anonymous participants engaged in more antisocial behaviors such as trolling, being antagonizing and upsetting others.
Researchers also suggest that despite having varied motivations, individuals seeking online anonymity share some striking similarities.
The Dark Tetrad And Anonymity
The 2023 study found that individuals with negative and unstable self-perceptions are drawn to anonymity and seek the freedom to take on different personas to satisfy various needs. Individuals struggling with self-consciousness and low self-esteem also prefer to remain anonymous online.
Further, individuals with dark personality traits seem to express malevolent identities from the shadows of anonymity to engage in behaviors that gratify them, but harm others. A 2022 study published in Personality and Individual Differences examined the relationship between online anonymity and the following dark personality traits:
- Machiavellianism. Individuals seeking anonymity are high in machiavellianism. This trait is associated with being manipulative and presenting deceptive and adaptable identities online. Digital environments offer people a risk-free opportunity to create personas strategically to achieve iniquitous and self-serving goals.
- Psychopathy. A higher level of psychopathy, characterized by antisocial behavior and a lack of empathy or remorse, points to a greater likelihood of presenting an adaptable and inauthentic self online and deceiving others using anonymity.
- Sadism. According to the 2023 study, sadism is positively associated with preferring an anonymous presence online to fulfill the need to enjoy others’ suffering, safely from behind a screen.
The Impact Of Anonymity On Online Behavior
An individual’s motivation to seek anonymity can predict their behavior online. The 2023 study reveals that individuals with “self-expression” motives engage in benign social behaviors to fulfill self-related goals.
In contrast, those higher in toxic motives engage in malignant, antisocial behaviors to achieve other-related goals. For instance, research shows that anonymous users are more likely to write trolling comments than others.
Additionally, a 2021 study compared the topics of interest and language used by incel forums and Reddit communities. The incel forums had more toxic posts than Reddit. Incels.co exhibited the most radical ideologies and had the highest levels of toxic language. Disparaging women, self-hatred and toxicity against society were popular topics across all forums.
The current anonymity trends highlight the need to create a safe online environment for all users. This can be achieved through a combination of technological solutions, community moderation and education on digital ethics.
“Early and ongoing support by national and local governments may also be effective in reducing internet antisocial behavior,” says Keita Masui, a researcher in Otemon Gakuin University in Japan. Promoting empathy and accountability at an individual level can promote healthier ways to express oneself and engage with others online.