“You Are As Evil As Your Social Network” –You Had Me at Article Title

December 11, 2012 § 8 Comments


Really interesting piece on Motherboard today — reexamines discussions of the so-called “Lucifer Effect” (in which people passively consent to unethical or otherwise inhumane behavior because the Bad Men tell them to), most interestingly (for me) in relation to anonymity and online behavior. The first question by author McLeon Gordon’s, while the response is by Dr. Alex Haslam (emphasis mine):

Gordon: Thinking about the web, have you looked at how anonymity affects peoples’ willingness to do evil?

Haslam: Your construction of the audience is quite critical there. For instance in Abu Ghraib, a lot of that stuff was filmed and photographed, but the point is who do you think is watching? Who’s taking the photographs? In a way, it’s about the relationship between you and the audience. I think that’s right. Just to anticipate one point, there’s a really nice analysis that was done by two researchers in the Netherlands, Tom Postmes and Russell Spears, looking at the relation or the correlation, across all available studies, between anonymity and destructive behavior. What they found was that that correlation is close to zero. There is no evidence of a relationship between anonymity and abuse. Everything hinges on moderators, and the key moderator is, what is the norm of the group?

If the norm of the group is to be destructive, well actually then anonymity can enhance that. But if the norm of the group is to be constructive, then anonymity can enhance that. So it isn’t the case that anonymity is one of those things that feeds into brutality. You know, doctors and nurses in a sense kind of dress up in a kind of uniform to make their personal identities less salient, and charities have a lot of anonymous donors who are very concerned to protect their identities for various reasons. That doesn’t stop them from doing good.

I think I need to go read that study like yesterday.


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§ 8 Responses to “You Are As Evil As Your Social Network” –You Had Me at Article Title

  • In fact, quite the opposite can be true. I have seen a surprising amount of abuse heaped on authors and other commenters at sites that converted over to (for example) the Facebook commenting system, ostensibly to reduce trolling. Some studies have shown that the visible presence of moderators and other authority figures in online communities actually exacerbates trolling, to the point that IRC servers request that channel owners not display their op privileges except when necessary to take some particular action. They ask that they de-op themselves as soon as possible.

    • First of all, hi! Second of all, I need to read that study before I can speak definitively about anything, but what I took from this article, and the point I think is most interesting, is that anonymity alone can’t account for abusive behaviors. If it did –and as you mentioned– people would behave themselves when posting under their real names. And clearly that does not happen. So instead of focusing exclusively on whatever externally-imposed forces that are said to “make” a person behave unethically or inhumanely (Bad Men or anonymity or whatever else), it’s critical to consider what behaviors are being performed to whom and under what social conditions. In the case of the Milgrem experiment, it wasn’t that people were merely taking marching orders, it’s that they identified with the person giving the orders, and so went along with the experiment because they had something to prove — i.e. HEY BOSS LOOK AT ME I’M DOING GOOD!!! —this is fascinating, and is something that seems intuitively right, but is also something I need to think more about…

  • Karen says:

    Have read some of Spears and Postmes earlier work and found it really thought-provoking. This looks like a study I’d be interested in as well. Thanks for linking!

  • Thanks for reading my article! It was so great talking to Dr. Haslam. Hope to read more of his work. Following your blog….

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