Anyone who’s been on the Internet for a while will be familiar with the idea that anonymity can to the worst coming out in the general populace. It’s not hard point to prove either, just wander over to any mildly popular video on YouTube and browse the comments section for a little while and you’ll see ready confirmation of the idea that regular people turn into total shitcocks the second they get the magical combination of anonymity and an audience. The idea was most aptly summed up by Penny Arcade in their Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory strip, something that has become kind of a reference piece sent to those poor souls who search for meaning as to why people are being mean to them on the Internet.
However it seems that the equation might need some reworking in light of new evidence coming from, of all places, South Korea.
I’ve long been of the thought that forcing people to use their real names would work in curtailing trolling to some degree as that removes one of the key parts of the fuckwad theory: anonymity. Indeed a site much more popular than mine said that the switch to Facebook comments, whilst dropping the total number of comments considerably, was highly effective in silencing the trolls on their site. Just over a year later however the same site posted an article saying that there’s considerable evidence that forcing users to use their real name had little effect on the total number of troll like comments citing research from South Korea and Carnegie Mellon. I’ve taken the liberty of reading the study for you and whilst the methods they employed are a little bit… soft for determining what a troll post was they do serve as a good basis for hypothesizing about how effective real name policies are.
If there was a causative link between forcing people to use their real names online and a reduction in undesirable behaviour we would’ve seen some strong correlations in the Carnegie Mellon study. Whilst there was some effectiveness shown (a reduction of 30% in the use of swear words) taken in the context that troll posts only account for a minority of posts on the sites studied (about 13%) the overall impact is quite low. Indeed whilst TechCrunch did say that Facebook comments silenced the trolls they may have called it too early as the study showed that whilst there was a damper initially, overall the level remained largely static after a certain period of time.
What this means for the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory is that the key part of the equation, anonymity, can be removed and much the same result will be had. This is a somewhat harrowing discovery as it means that the simple act of putting a regular person in front of an audience can lead to them being a reprehensible individual. On the flip side though it could also be more indicative of the people themselves as the study showed that only a minority of users engage in such behaviour. It would be very interesting to see how that compares to real life interactions as I’m sure we all know people who act like online trolls in real life.
In light of this new evidence my stance on using real names as a troll reduction method is obviously flawed. I was never really in any favour of implementing such a system (I considered using Facebook comments here for a little while) but I thought its efficacy was unquestioned. My favourite method for combating trolls is a form of timed hellbanning where by the user will not appear to everyone else but to them they will appear like they are contributing. It’s a rather ugly solution if you permanently ban someone but time limited versions appear to work to great effect in turning trolls into contributing users.
It may just be that trolling is an inevitable part of any community and the best we can do is remediate it, rather than eliminate it.