Internet anonymity allows for prevalence of hate-speech

I like to think of myself as pretty internet-sav­vy—I’m the online editor here at the Misc, and I’ve run several blogs before in my life. I’ve wasted hours of my life in the depths of both Tumblr and Reddit. However, since I’ve been in charge of moderating comments for the Miscel­lany News’ online content, I’ve been inducted into a new world of online bullshit, featuring comments that reveal unsettling nadirs of hu­man behavior.

Thus, I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of internet denizens with whom I have never before identified—naive new internet users and obnoxious columnists who use “millennial” like it’s an insult.

What is wrong with people on the internet? How does a slim mask of anonymity bring out such vitriol, such hate directed at writers and other commenters, such shameful depths of hu­man behavior in the online discussion on arti­cles as trivial as Financial Times’ “Emoji, Brexit, ad blocker and my notable words of 2015” and Buzzfeed’s “33 Genius Elf On The Shelf Ideas” (seriously, look up the nasty Buzzfeed Elf on the Shelf comments, featuring cursing, all-caps, and personal attacks)?

On the one hand, angry responses to content online can be a legitimate form of protesting unjust ideologies, or a warranted response to long-lasting cultural trauma. On the other hand, the type of nastiness that is most common on­line grows out of trivial disagreements and clashing egos—again, see the Buzzfeed “Elf on the Shelf” Debacle of 2015.

I was specifically spurred to write this piece based on the online response to a recent Mis­cellany News column, a one–off opinion piece by a guest columnist in the sports section focus­ing one fan’s response to rape allegation against Blackhawk team member Patrick Kane. The outcry in the comments section of the Miscella­ny News website was unusually large in number and ripe with nastiness.

Many commenters wrote long contributions in which they argue against the points made in the piece; although most of their comments are invalidated by the fact that they have no grasp at all on the difference between investigative journalism and an op–ed, they engaged with the information in the piece in a discursive way.

However, as moderator, I had the responsibil­ity of deciding which of the other, less construc­tive comments that I could, in good conscience, allow on the site. The Miscellany does not al­low obscene language in its comments section, and I also follow a “Yik Yak”-style policy where I remove comments that personally target an individual (including the writer) in an obscene, unnecessarily personal or violent way. I had to delete dozens of comments under this rubric.

Highlights of abusive behavior in deleted comments featured digs about the female–iden­tified author’s supposed romantic history, gen­der–based slurs, ableist insults and accusations about her mental health, condescending and unasked–for “career advice” and general rude name–calling.

I was also shocked at the reminder that peo­ple exist who are both young enough to know how to comment on a WordPress site, and mi­sogynistic enough to comment on how the au­thor’s gender makes her unintelligent. Hear that phone ringing, commenter? It’s 1924. They want their sexist attitude back.

I was reeling after reading all of these means­pirited personal attacks which shifted the com­menter’s disagreement with the article to an ag­gressive and wildly inappropriate attack on the author herself.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised: re­cent research into online harassment from the Pew Research Center revealed that while men were slightly more likely to be insulted online, women were far more likely to be harassed in threatening or “severe” ways that threatened their safety or mental health. Like many sectors of our society, the internet provides another platform in which women are targeted, harassed and abused disproportionately because of their gender. It seems almost obvious, then, that a female–identified author online would face at­tacks and harassment tied specifically to her gender, body or sexuality.

However, the vitriol was only keyed down slightly between often–ungendered anonymous commenters in the section. So to return to my original quest, what is wrong with people on the internet such that they are able to make the choice to type and submit these comments that target another person?

After doing some research into computer–mediated communication, it seems like the is­sue is that commenters don’t see the author that they target as, in fact, another person. Accord­ing to the New Yorker report on this issue, psy­chologists have determined that a level of dis­inhibition arises from the anonymity of online comments that is related to how the mediation of the computer between commentator and oth­er participants dehumanizes others in the com­menter’s mind: that is, the distance created by the internet can make people feel like they don’t have treat others like human beings (The New Yorker, “The Psychology of Online Comments,” 10.23.13).

Personally, I think that this mediation leads not only to dehumanization but also a confla­tion between the anger a commenter feels about a relatively trivial idea they disagree with and unnecessary anger directed at the author who expressed this idea.

If you imagine yourself in their place, it al­most seems possible. Picture this: you’re scroll­ing through articles online, when you see one that pisses you off. It’s not that it’s racist, or transphobic or actually damaging to society in any way, it’s just wrong. Maybe it insults your favorite movie, criticizes a sports star you love or just looks at an important social justice issue differently than you do.

Of course you need to get involved in the comments, so you can educate the author and other readers about the right version of this idea. You type out a comment where you say your ideas, just like the author said their ideas. Good job, you! You’re contributing to discourse!

But then you feel your comment is ignored, or that the wrongness of the article is just too outrageous, and you end your comment with an expression of disgust or frustration—”I’m surrounded by idiots!” you exclaim, or, “How could this dumb author think [idea]!”—and all the sudden, you’re in dehumanization territory. Chances are, you didn’t mean any harm, but you also failed to think critically about your impact on others and you’ve just let a little bit of nega­tivity seep out into the internet.

In the end, this common experience of alien­ation through computer mediated conversation is no excuse for the type of personal attacks that occur online, including on the Miscellany’s own pages. However, I think most of us (including myself) have been guilty of that slippage of neg­ativity online.

I think we all need to make an extra, concert­ed effort to exercise our empathy when posting online. Although there will still be negative peo­ple out there making life difficult for modera­tors like me, I feel that is essential that we each try to take stock of how our words would affect another human being before we trash an author, insult another commenter—or even, God for­bid, inflict our nasty comments on the website’s moderator.

—Elizabeth Dean ’17 is an English major.


  1. Let’s ban free speech and install college English majors as the official censors. If you say it’s ok, we will go with it.

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