Unlike the real world, anonymity is easily achievable in cyberspace. The Internet allows a person to create a hidden identity and reap its perceived benefits. Driven by a variety of motivations, people use anonymity to fulfill personal goals, express themselves freely, and engage in antisocial behavior without fear of consequences.
While the Internet can benefit humanity, it is also an incubator for toxicity. Anonymity in digital spaces can lead to liberation and addiction – a situation where people act uncharacteristically in groups and engage in impulsive and sometimes aggressive acts because they cannot be personally identified. For example, people may write more aggressive anonymous blog posts compared to those that could be easily identified.
As such behavior is increasingly common, it is important to understand the inherent characteristics and motivations that drive individuals to anonymous digital spaces.
The dual motivations for online anonymity
A 2023 study identified two motivations underlying the desire to remain anonymous in online social interactions:
- Self-expression. Individuals seek anonymity to express aspects of themselves that they might not otherwise feel comfortable sharing. Self-disclosure is also made easier because of the reduced threat of negative outcomes and social evaluation.
- Toxic behavior. Individuals are motivated to use the cloak of anonymity to get away without getting killed after being rude to others. The researchers found that anonymous participants engaged in more antisocial behaviors, such as trolling, competing, and upsetting others.
The researchers also suggest that despite having different motivations, people seeking online anonymity share some striking similarities.
The Dark Four and Anonymous
The 2023 study found that people with negative and unstable self-concepts are drawn to anonymity and seek the freedom to assume different personalities to satisfy various needs. People who struggle with self-consciousness and low self-esteem they also prefer to remain anonymous online.
Additionally, individuals with dark personality traits appear to express malevolent identities from the shadows of anonymity to engage in behaviors that satisfy 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. People who seek anonymity are high in Machiavellianism. This trait is associated with being manipulative and presenting deceptive and adaptive identities online. Digital environments offer people a risk-free opportunity to create personas strategically to achieve unfair and self-serving goals.
- Psychopathy. A higher level psychopathycharacterized by antisocial behavior and a lack of empathy or remorse, indicates a greater likelihood of presenting an adaptable and authentic self online and deceiving others using anonymity.
- Sadism. According to the 2023 study, sadism positively correlates with a preference for an anonymous online presence to fulfill the need to enjoy the pain of others, safely behind a screen.
The impact of anonymity on online behavior
An individual’s motivation to seek anonymity can predict their online behavior. 2023 study reveals that individuals with “self-expression” motivations engage in benign social behaviors to fulfill self-related goals.
Conversely, those with higher toxic motivations engage in malignant, antisocial behaviors to achieve other relevant goals. For example, research shows that anonymous users are more likely to write troll comments than others.
In addition, a 2021 study compared the topics of interest and language used by incel forums and Reddit communities. Incel forums had more toxic posts than Reddit. Incels.co it featured the most radical ideologies and had the highest levels of toxic language. Depreciation of women, self-hatred and anti-societal toxicity were popular topics across the forums.
Current anonymity trends highlight the need to create a secure online environment for all users. This can be achieved through a combination of technology solutions, community coordination and education about digital ethics.
“Timely and continuous support from national and local governments can also be effective in reducing anti-social behavior online,” says Keita Masui, a researcher at Otemon Gakuin University in Japan. Promoting empathy and responsibility at the individual level can promote healthier ways of expressing and interacting with others online.