Non-anonymous online trolls on the rise: study

Trolls are increasingly using their full name online, suggesting that a ban on anonymity will likely fail to prevent the feared ‘firestorms’ but possibly aggravate them even more, a new study has found.

Hate speech in social media can damage or even destroy the reputation of an individual or a company very quickly, researchers said.

Widespread opinion blames the fact that individuals generally write these things anonymously online as the reason for these posts, they said.

However, researchers from University of Zurich in Switzerland found that trolls are increasingly using their full name online.

As a result, a ban on anonymity will likely fail to prevent the feared firestorms but possibly aggravate them even more, they said.

Researchers were able to demonstrate that non-anonymous online trolls are increasingly becoming the rule rather than the exception.

The evaluation of more than 500,000 social-political comments from around 1,600 online petitions from a German platform ‘openpetition’ between 2010 and 2013 showed that individuals posting hate speech who were using their full name were even more common than anonymous trolls.

Many online news portals or social media platforms are endeavoring to put a stop to the coarsening of the language used in comments in social networks, researchers said.

“As a means of facilitating a civilised digital culture of debate, there are often calls to scrap online anonymity,” said Lea Stahel, sociology doctoral student at Zurich.

“The opinion prevails that anonymity disinhibits people from committing obviously deviant actions because they can dispense with their own responsibility and are protected from direct consequences,” said Stahel.

According to researchers, so many online trolls are not bothering to remain anonymous because they do not consider it necessary to remain anonymous.

Rather than purely personal acts of revenge, hate speech is often a reaction to violations of a social norm, such as compliance with environmental or plagiarism standards, or infringements of socially desirable behaviour such as political correctness.

Online trolls can also assume that they will scarcely ever be held accountable for their aggression.

According to Stahel, it is considered very unlikely that a busy politician or a struggling company would pick precisely that person to sue when overwhelmed with a whole flood of insults.

Secondly, trolls can convince and mobilise the other people in their social networks more easily if they appear using their real name.

This signalises a willingness to take a risk in order to state their opinion publicly, thus gaining extra trust, researchers said.

Ideally this can raise their social status, because they move in digital networks like Facebook in “Friend Groups” where their comments resonate thanks to “Shares” and “Likes”.

The findings were published in the journal PLoS ONE.