Social and Psychological Structures that Influence Citizenship and Inclusion in Anonymous Communities
Erica Oman and Adam Croft
Table of Contents
Psychological Mechanisms 4
Conceptions of Citizenship with Translational Possibility 8
Burgeoning Institutional Structures 11
Rearrangement of Traditional Philosophical Discourse 16
Outgroup Dehumanization and Real World Implication 19
Works Cited 22
Over the last two decades, the political conversation has moved online as more people gain internet access. The move away from interpersonal face-to-face conversation to interaction with varying degrees of anonymity through a computer screen has consequences for political discourse. Not only are political opinions shaped away from real time social interactions, the internet is a wholly new social realm that is largely untied to any other political framework that humans have ever experienced. This novel political framework has distinct and damaging consequences for women and real world political systems.
Internet access is increasing steadily throughout the world and with this access comes greater ability to engage with one another anonymously. The anonymous spheres of the internet can be seen as an ultimate majoritarian democracy with no checks or balances on the majority. This paper will explore the ways that citizens’ behavior is impacted by anonymity and the implications that this has for traditionally politically underrepresented groups, specifically women. How the anonymous corners of the internet establish social standing without visual, audio, or any other sorts of cues will be seen through the community’s explicitly stated rules, known as Rules of the Internet1, and how or whether the individuals in this community mirror the assumptions and privileges of the broader reality outside of the internet. The internet, and especially anonymous spaces of the internet, exist in a vacuum devoid of institutions such as voting, economy, and nationality, all foundations of traditional political frameworks. Anonymity and separateness from immediate social reaction create a novel social environment for online citizens to interact in and as such, anonymity can call forth unconscious psychological processes that result in behaviors with distinct and damaging consequences for the political legitimacy of online and real world spaces.
Anonymity creates a unique environment in which behavior, that would not be acceptable in the real world, can take place. Suler’s (2004) explanation of the online disinhibition effect outlines the reasons behind the often puzzling but wildly consistent behaviors seen within anonymous environments. He first splits behaviors into the conceptual dichotomy of benign or toxic disinhibition. Benign disinhibition results in profound personal disclosure and acts of extreme empathy or kindness and are often seen as an exploration of one’s own identity or some process for personal growth. The other branch in the dichotomy, toxic disinhibition or mean-spirited cathartic experiences that individuals seem to take part in simply because they feel safe from retribution, while cloaked in anonymity. Sadly, toxic disinhibition occurs far more frequently.
Within toxic disinhibition, Suler (2004) states that there are six psychological factors that contribute to online disinhibition:
Dissociative anonymity: A compartmentalization of self away from one’s offline life and psyche, allowing one to rationalize his2 espoused opinion as not his true opinion.
Invisibility: Refers mostly to perception of other individuals online. If one is unable to see any body language of those reacting to her comments, she is able to freely interpret the message in a way that causes the least amount of cognitive or emotional strain for her and how she chooses to react to those messages.
Asynchronicity: Responses are generated over a longer period of time than in any type of face to face interaction, which means that negative reactions that are caused by a commenter’s remarks are not immediately socially punishing.
Solipsistic Introjection: Users read replies to his comment in his own voice, which encourages disinhibition because “talking with oneself is safer than talking to others” (Suler, 2004).
Dissociative imagination: The commenter’s ability to create a sort of character for her online identity. This causes the commenter to see her actions as more of a game than associate actions with real consequences.
Minimization of status and authority: Online there is not a way for an individual to immediately distinguish another’s authority in any type of social hierarchy; therefore, a sense of anyone having the ability and right to voice his or her opinions exists because everyone else is seen as a peer (Suler, 2004). These six factors dictate how individuals react to one another socially in this sphere of anonymity, though behavior is not exactly what one would expect.
Specifically, minimization of authority has the most impactful implications for how existing, real social structures outside of the internet have permeated and amplified into the internet sphere. The online disinhibition effect is noted throughout sexual harassment literature and explains just one aspect of why sexual harassment is so pervasive online (Barak, 2005; Belk, 2013). The online disinhibition effect is noted often in regards to cyberbullying at the grade school level, both in literature intended to help school officials deal with cyberbullying and studies conducted with grade school aged children (Mason, 2008; Vandebosch & Van Cleemput; 2009; Bauman, 2010).
Suler’s (2004) theory of online disinhibition presents us with the way in which people become citizens of the internet. Because there is a perceived distance from one’s real-life self and the self that one becomes on the internet, the online self must be an extension of one’s sense of self but a different part of one’s self. The psychological distance inherent in the online disinhibition effect can create a new persona imbued with the fragile trappings of psychological well-being. This is by no means an entrance to the dangerous musings as to which of the selves is most reflective of one’s true self, but simply posits that the internet creates enough psychological distance between one’s actions and reactions to it to inhabit a different self and that both selves are psychologically important enough to an individual to warrant different types of behavioral reactions to their environments.
In addition to online disinhibition, ingroup/outgroup bias allows individuals to justify usually unacceptable behaviors that might take place online. Ingroup favoritism and outgroup prejudice takes place when a group with which one identifies, whether it be racial, cultural, or based on one’s opinions etc., encounters another group that do not have the same characteristics as one’s group. Preferential judgment is often passed when a member of one’s ingroup is involved, because our view of our own ingroup allows individuals to create exception to behaviors perpetrated, based on knowledge or perception of one’s ingroup members (Levin & Sidanius, 1999). Outgroup bias is important to mention for a myriad of reasons, but the most pertinent are as follows: researchers find it so indicative of general online political discourse, which they measure in not one but two ways (stereotyping then “intrapersonal or other group [orientation]”) (Smith & Bressler, 2013). These biases allow seemingly unstructured conversations to lead into and then justify “crowd behaviour supportive of sexist and class-bound domination.” (Eronen, 2014).
In regards to anonymity, one can theorize that the effects and subsequent behaviors commonly associated with outgroup bias are amplified through the online disinhibition effect. Asynchronicity, invisibility, anddissociative imagination allow one to justify any action because he does not see the direct interpersonal consequences. For citizenship, when these biases translate into exclusion, individuals are pushed further out of the loose, majoritarian polity in which there are no consequences for uncivil discourse.
The final mechanism that allows for acceptance of asocial behavior online is the ease with which citizens can block any opinions that they do not agree with, known as echo chambers. Echo chambers are self-created spaces in which any different opinion or fact that goes against the generally held opinions of an online citizen are shut out; that person only exposes herself to things that she agrees with. Echo chambers are incredibly easy to create and are often created accidentally. Almost everyone with a social media account has had some version of ‘a crazy aunt/uncle’ that he or she has chosen to unfollow because that other person posts very extreme political posts. That person is well on their way to creating a very effective echo chamber. These echo chambers, when created by the community, help to fuel outgroup hatred and justify the actions of the group, especially when these asocial behaviors move off of the internet into reality, as is seen with the overtly misogynistic discourse surrounding the Gamergate scandal of the past few years.
Gamergate began on August 8, 2014, when female game-developer, Zoe Quinn, was accused of sleeping with a videogame critic in order to garner favorable reviews for her games in a blog post by her ex-boyfriend. The blog post, along with Quinn’s address and other personal details, were reposted onto many other forums, targeted because they would be likely to harass Quinn. Because of these public posts, Quinn was subjected to a barrage of death and rape threats that continue today. Under the guise of calling for transparency in the game development and critic world, any female who speaks out against sexism in gaming is likely to experience the same treatment as Zoe Quinn. The two most notable cases of women being targeted for harassment, aside from Quinn, are game developer Brianna Wu and feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian (Todd, 2015). This is a real example of how outgroup bias, echo chambers, and the online disinhibition effect can lead individuals to harass an individual online and in the real world to the point that an individual must structure their entire lives around threats posed by entire, faceless communities bent only on harassing them.
Conceptions of Citizenship with Translational Possibility Because the internet is a political space, some type of inclusion into the space means that there is also citizenship with beneficial qualities. Some of the philosophical conceptions of citizenship for modern states have translational properties that can be applied to anonymous communities online. The conceptions of citizenship that translate best into the novel political framework of the internet have to do with internal or psychological borders that decide inclusion or exclusion. These have translational ability because citizenship into anonymous online communities is often decided on an individual or group level, rather than by some overarching governing entity, with the exception of being banned by a moderator.
In order to effectively delegate citizenship, Peter Nyers argues we must lower the mental differences in cost of crossing borders for groups that he calls “undesirable” individuals. States raise the barriers necessary to cross between states for “undesirable” individuals with this status via extra monitoring once in the state, unequal visa issuance, extra searches, and overt negative stereotyping. Crossing borders for “desirable” citizens contains fewer of these time consuming and psychologically taxing barriers to entry. These differences in entry costs then translate into differences in citizenship and all of the rights that that might entail. The differences in experience lead to unequal personal, social, and psychological burdens that go unaddressed by officials because these inequalities are often proscribed to groups the government is unmotivated to represent. The rules governing access to participation online are relegated only to whether or not someone has internet access; however, participation and acceptance as a citizen of the online community is subject to unspecified rules. The irregular temporal borders between states therefore translate into the online sphere.
Judith Shklar’s (1991) conception of citizenship applies only to American citizenship and like Shklar, this research applies mostly to online realms that are available to anyone on the internet but are used mostly by those in Western, English-speaking democracies (Dewey, 2014). The social hierarchy that Shklar’s American conceptions of citizenship are the same social hierarchies that we might expect to see in the anonymous online realm. Shklar argues that standing in society places one within the circle of citizenship. In America, citizenship was first recognized by the ability to vote. Voting was seen as incredibly important because “without the vote, they [non landowning Western Virginians] were slaves” therefore to be able to vote and participate was to be of the non-subservient group (Shklar, 1991, pg. 48). As suffrage spread to non-land owning males, then African-Americans, women, and finally to everyone 18 years or older, those in power sought to hold onto their power because there is “a deep and common desire to exclude large groups of human beings from citizenship” by establishing true standing as being independent from the need of state assistance or earning enough to be self-sufficient (Shklar, 1991, pg. 28). This equality of access imparted by universal suffrage but qualified with earning expectations perfectly mirrors the equality of internet access but true ability to interact qualified by certain expected characteristics.
Finally, the conception of citizenship that has translational ability from reality to online, is that of Balibar. In Citizenship, Balibar (2015) mentions the idea of (emphasis his) “internal exclusion. In its most general definition, it means that an “external” border is mirrored by an “internal” border (pg. 69). In other words, the condition of foreignness is projected within a political space or national territory to create an “inadmissible alterity” (Balibar, 2015, pg. 69) which looks very much like behaviors perpetuating outgroup bias that occur in online discourse which is justified psychologically by the online disinhibition effect.
Balibar (2015) would explain incivility of political discourse online through the lens of conflict, because what is uncivil discourse but, at its root, a conflict fought with words? Balibar (2015) believes that all politics is to continue conflict “by other means” and to perpetuate this conception of politics, consensus of citizens or internal solidarity, as well as formation of groups, must be achieved and solidified (pg. 96-97). As internal solidarity is solidified, the hostility between “camps” is maximized. This leads to a situation in which individuals involved “internalize all solidarities” and to “externalize all hostilities” (Balibar, 2015, pgs. 96-97). Formation of outgroup bias happens, according to this conceptualization, in order to sustain the community through identity. Group identity is thusly protected through harassment of others which is cyclically justified because the group feels as though it must retain its group identity.
The foundation of Balibar’s theory of citizenship is that all citizenship is dialectical and decided by many factors both institutional and social. This dialectical approach lends itself to the hope that citizenship in the anonymous online sphere will move towards greater inclusion in the overall conversation and community. More simply because the internet does not have the limiting factors of face-to-face interaction, there is no real need to create echo chambers that perpetuate hostile reaction to or exclusion of others. However, because echo chambers are easy to create, more egalitarian allowance of participation becomes difficult. The ease of exclusion means that anonymous communities create legitimacy for those who are included but do not foster meaningful discourse that is rooted in reality. Those who are included subconsciously internalize the culture that excludes in these forums; therefore, they become able to dehumanize outgroups without recognizing that exclusion and loss of other legitimate social and political attitudes is taking place within themselves.
Burgeoning Institutional Structures Large anonymous online communities, such as 4chan and Reddit are infamous as communities in which uncivil discourse and harassment is largely unpoliced (Dewey, 2015). 4chan’s model of anonymity is extreme in that the ability to make an account or be tied to a username is completely restricted. Users cannot message one another or otherwise form meaningful social ties to one another with legitimate certainty. 4chan’s own statistics show that most users are “young, college-educated men” and the site sees most of its traffic from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany Sweden, and France and users are brought to this community because of a love of “video games, Japanese culture, comics and technology” (Dewey, 2014). Another large internet community that is culturally similar to 4chan is Reddit, although in Reddit, usernames and direct messages are able to be used. These communities are the focus of this research project in particular because they are accessed by a large amount of people, mostly in the Western world. According to Reddit, in 2015 alone, they experienced 82.54 billion page views and 73.15 million threads that garnered 725.85 million comments (Blog.reddit, 2015).
Clearly, these communities are massive but there are limitations to population demographics as they are populated by younger (30 and below is the estimate), highly educated individuals and the vast majority of posts are in English and are participated in by people from Western democratic nations (Blog.reddit). These communities do not generally contain older individuals and are loosely moderated for harassment because they generate too much content for unpaid individuals to look through. There are also limitations in how much we can actually know about these communities because they are anonymous and only data about countries of origin and amount and type of content generated can be trusted as trustworthy demographic data.
Around 2006, The Rules of the Internet were created by 4chan founder Chris Poole to describe “the unspoken code of conduct that lubricates Internet [sic.] discourse” (Leopold, 2013). Because of 4chan’s role as the most strictly anonymous and infamous online community, the fact that one of its founders created the Rules of the Internet shows that these Rules are the clearest evidence of overarching institutional rules and universally accepted norms that govern anonymous online life and culture (Dewey, 2014). The Rules of the Internet were chosen as evidence of the opinions of the majority of anonymous communities because specifically a founder of 4chan created it. The Rules of the Internet were written when Poole started noticing in anonymous online gaming communities, called MMORPG’s or Massively Multiplayer online role-playing games, that anonymity created certain system structures that facilitated behavior which reached across many different online communities and cultures. This list of rules is widely accepted by the majority and held in a lofty position within the polity, almost as a constitution because it is a codification of the institutions users interact in everyday.
None of the Rules are often mentioned outright in online communities, with the exception of Rule 343, because they were created in order to codify a general unspoken way that culture tends to form in anonymous online communities on the whole (Leopold, 2013). The Rules of the Internet are flippant, Rule 22 and 23 are duplicates because they talk about copypasta, content that is often copied. These Rules are also playfully dismissive. Rule 11 states, “All your carefully picked arguments can easily be ignored” which means that real debate is looked down upon. Playfulness aside, the Rules are clear about what individuals and behaviors are approved of in online interactions. All individuals in anonymous spheres of the internet are expected to be males and they are also to assume that that is the gender of who they are interacting with, as exemplified in Rule 30: There are no girls on the internet. The Rules of the internet show that online culture finds no reason to consider individuals with other life experiences.
The minimization of status and authority factor of online disinhibition has mostly translated into the assumption that all individuals are heterosexual and male, which is explicitly stated in Rules 27 through 30. Rule 27, “Always question a person's sexual prefrences [sic.] without any real reason” suggests that to question the person’s sexual preferences is to wound his self-identity through implying that he is not heterosexual. Rule 28: “Always question a person's gender - just incase [sic.] it's really a man”. Rule 29 states, “In the internet all girls are men and all kids are undercover FBI agents”, and Rule 30 states, “There are no girls on the internet”. These rules all seem to signal a kind of decision making process that ultimately lands the internet into the position of assuming maleness; thus, giving and acknowledging that discourse online is once again dictated through Eronen’s (2014) notion of “sexist and class-bound domination”. These rules, and their following assumptions about who should be in these anonymous communities, indicate that women on the internet would do best to act as though they are men and work very hard to keep that illusion up if they want to have full inclusion.
The anonymity of the internet seems as though it would foster the utopian imagined communities of Benedict Anderson (1991); communities created to cultivate a deep sense of belongingness through shared language and interests that advances feelings of nationalism. Anderson (1991) states that “it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” (pg. 50). A more utopian imagined community might take place on the internet with groups who take part in a group of online games of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, such as World of Warcraft. Imagined communities might be more likely to take hold because people anonymously band their different skill levels together in order to complete goals and move forward, as individuals and a group, to higher levels in the game.
Communities without these goals, such as 4chan and Reddit, tend to devolve into unimaginative echo chambers, in which the majority of that community becomes populated strictly by white males. This pushes individuals with different opinions and experiences to smaller communities outside of the larger groups. This is exemplified most clearly on Reddit because there are a number of subreddits, or smaller communities that exist outside of the majority, that are geared toward mostly female members, which is an example of self-selection out of the majority community by non-majority groups. These groups typically take on more stringent and expansive rules with the goal of protecting female majority subreddits from the issues they face in more hegemonic online communities. Through qualitative analysis it is apparent that regardless of size, female-oriented groups must police user behavior in order to maintain a functional online community. All subreddit rule information and screenshots can be found in the appendix of this paper. The subreddit makeupaddiction4, which is majority female, specifically bans the phrase “you look better without makeup” because it is seen as a misogynist comment mostly made by men coming into a space seen as safe for exploration. In a similarly sized subreddit with no clear gender orientation, r/Gifrecipes, the rules are brief and less focused on policing user behavior because they simply do not have to. The female and male fashion advice subreddits are also indicative of this trend via their divergent rules. The female group has very similar, however they must include that no unsolicited diet, exercise, or weight loss advice will be tolerated nor will comments that would make a user uncomfortable (body shaming, hate speech, or victim blaming). While the only rules that pertain to the man’s page is that all hair, skincare, fitness, and grooming posts are reserved for the specific threads of the page that pertain to these areas, are far cry from the rules deemed necessary by their female counterparts. The makeupaddiction subreddit is a community that found the majority opinion of its members’ hobby so odious that it relocated to another place where they might not receive recognition, good or bad, from the majority of the community.
In a sense, these online communities become their own purposive associations. The broader, hegemonic groups do so with the implicit purpose of excluding minority users and their opinions whenever possible. Online communities that form in response to this also operate with a purpose, albeit a more explicit one, of maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for their members, as exemplified by the aforementioned makeupaddiction group. Spicer (2001) defines a purposive association as “one that has been consciously designed, or at least consciously adapted, by some individual or group of individuals to attain a particular set of substantive purposes deemed to be desireable” (pg. 15). Spicer’s definition is clearly applicable to online communities, as well as Spicer’s metaphorical extension to the state, and the implications of that extension. Spicer (2001) argues that government’s pursuit of a purposive vision is “particularly repressive when different groups of citizens disagree sharply about human ends and values” (pg. 9). This is precisely the issue with hegemonic online communities, like 4chan and Reddit, which contain subconscious, community-driven standards, and outright documents that suppress minority users and viewpoints. Large anonymous online discussion platforms become inherently repressive because they extend the social hierarchy of the state and push communities away from one another.
This pushing of communities away from each other cultivates the most extreme members of both groups to stay in these communities. More moderate individuals will opt out of majority spheres as a whole or simply “lurk”, which is to only read the discourse of these imagined communities without participating (Rules of the Internet). The pushing out from the community via outgroup bias is shown by Rule of the Internet 10, “If you enjoy any rival sites - DON'T”, which implies strongly that there are social networks that citizens value that they can then be banished from and that that banishment would be psychologically harmful. By using outgroup dislike to persuade outgroup individuals to self-select out of the larger community, the “inequality” that the “comradeship” negates is then forcefully ejected from the echo chamber. The majority is then further from dissident voices or a need to consider a different viewpoint when forming new opinions or considering actions. This is how the tyranny of the internet majority and mob mentality is perpetuated, especially through toxic online disinhibition.
Rearrangement of Traditional Philosophical Discourse Anonymity on the internet inverts the Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance (1971) . Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance was a thought experiment designed because political decisions are made by individuals who know how their decisions can benefit themselves. Decision makers are motivated against benefitting individuals other than themselves. Therefore, by removing that self-identity, decisions of who can benefit from inclusion in the community become truly egalitarian and empathetic. Citizens of anonymous internet communities are aware of their own standing in society but everyone that they interact with is covered by a Veil of Ignorance, under which the citizen cannot peek until discourse begins. This then leads the Veil of Ignorance to not impart to individuals equality of voice and participation in the community, but rather to assert the status quo for the majority opinion, ad infinitum. As exemplified in the Rules, all citizens of the internet are assumed to be at the very least heterosexual and male. The utility of this assumption of maleness means that females are relegated to objects outside of these individuals’ consideration and are automatically relegated to the outgroup. The lack of the identifying marks of standing, caused by an inability to see who one is interacting with, does not stop the anonymous community from perpetuating existing social structures found in reality that exclude women.
Exclusion becomes the implicit endgame of homogenous and purposive online associations which then bears out tremendous consequences for minority participation in civil discourse. As modern conversations on governance occur within the created latent exclusivity of online forums, the internet exacerbates problematic minority disenfranchisement from the political process--particularly as it pertains to women. One can draw a parallel from the effect online forums have on minority involvement in politics to the notion of anomie and anomic suicide posited by Emile Durkheim. George Simpson, writing on Durkheim’s (1951) Suicide discusses anomic suicide as occurring when a person is a part of society’s “collective conscience” and that “regulation of the individual is upset” (pg. 15) by other forces acting on the individual or society. This is precisely the case with homogenous online communities that push out minority groups. As communities develop more stringent, purposive, or exclusive standards to protect from uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, they disconnect from the norms of our larger society. Therefore, those using these platforms, as well as those excluded from them, experience anomie and subsequent anomic suicide of the user's online self.
Anomic disconnection brings with it tremendous consequences both in the political and sociological sense. As groups, primarily women, continue to be ostracized by online platforms, their anomie grows in reference to the societal norm of political participation. In parallel, socially privileged groups continue to use purposive online forums to exclude and their anomie grows in reference to the societal norm of non-exclusivity. Durkheim (1951) shows us that such anomie bears negative consequences in terms of one’s mental wellbeing and sense of actualization, but it bears additional consequences for our system of governance. Simply put, the thoughtful deliberation of citizens in democracy presupposes that there cannot be great distance from the standard norms of participation brought on by the anomie generated by online communities. Durkheim’s broad theoretical parallel between suicide and societal belongingness has already been empirically recorded in online spaces. A 2014 study from Batterham et al. (2014) found that members of online communities who reported suicidal ideation “had significantly higher depression severity, anxiety severity, thwarted belongingness, and perceived burdensomeness, but no significant difference in acquired capability” (pg. 453). Therefore, we can conclude that failure to engage and feel belonging in online communities creates real anomie that has both alarming mental health implications as well as polarizing political ones.
In the anonymous polity, the Rules show that social hierarchies, present in the real world and increased by anomie, form in online anonymous communities. These hierarchies come to denote citizenship and inclusion as well as rights. The only absolute right on the internet is the right to free speech as seen in Rule 8, “There are no real rules about posting” although most online forums very quickly institute a system in which an individual can be banned, communities with the highest amounts of anonymity and hegemonic social representation often do not ban for anything but the most heinous crimes, as is the case with 4Chan. The ability to ban can be equated with the legitimate violence of the state to create a police force or army, which is seen in Rule 9 of the Internet, “There are no real rules about moderation either - enjoy your ban”. As there are no resources outside of a sense of belongingness to be offered or taken away by the community, and most individuals can gain access to anonymous communities, exclusion from citizenship is often rationalized by those in the communities as a self-selection out. Because it is easy to rationalize in purely homogenous communities, after a significant amount of time has passed from creation of these communities, only the most toxic voices of the ingroup survive. These toxic voices and justifications can lead to a perceived majority opinion far outside of the social norms present in the real-world such as with Gamergate or the acceptance and excitement surrounding the leaking of female celebrity photographs that have very far-reaching consequences for women.
Outgroup Dehumanization and Real World Implication Women are specifically targeted as an outgroup very often online. The anonymous sphere is rife with sexist discourse ranging from the casual, to the hypersexual, to unstable objectification. In the Rules of the Internet, this acceptance of sexism is seen most jarringly in Rule 31. Rule 31 states, “TITS or GTFO - the choice is yours”, which means that a female is to send the group pictures of her breasts, in the event that femininity has been exposed by other members of the community or the individual has exposed herself to be female, or to face harassment.
The inclusion of Rule 31 signifies widespread acceptance of the sexual objectification of women and that they are only included in the ingroup if they accept this objectification and are willing to dehumanize themselves because they recognize that they are in the outgroup. This commodification of the right to online social acceptance for women specifically indicates that males are the decision makers for basic social rules of anonymous communities online. The vast proliferation of this casual outgroup dehumanization of women has clear impacts in reality. Although an individual may use dissociative imagination to rationalize his toxic online disinhibition, this individual exists outside of the online realm and engages with others in society while internalizing the same attitudes of objectification and misogyny.
Wendy Brown (2015) argued that Neoliberalism “has secured private property [...], facilitated capital accumulation and thus mass exploitation, and presumed and entrenched privileges for a bourgeois white heterosexual male subject” (page 33). The perpetuation of this privilege in the online sphere is a last bastion of supremacy, as the implicit privileges of being white and male are being perceived as slowly being chipped away in the real world. Anonymous communities are almost naturally an arena created for those who do not feel inclusion in real society. Online anonymous communities seem to have a social hierarchy developed by individuals who are stereotypically in power in the real world but somehow feel powerless or threatened, but privileged nonetheless, and therefore must exert their social standing and power over those who also might lack standing in reality.
Moreover, Interpersonal Contact Theory tells us that contact between different groups in a society can decrease the likelihood of discrimination and conflict between the two groups (Allport, 1954). As Allport (1954) put it,
Prejudice...may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional supports, and...leads to the perception of common interests and common humanity between members of the two groups (pg. 281).
This is precisely the situation purposive and exclusive online communities run headlong into, as they are designed to create greater social and psychological distance between groups and limit humanization of outgroups. The psychological incentive for internet citizens to inhabit ideological echo chambers increases the likelihood of conflict between social groups because limiting contact between them exacerbates political and sociological tensions.
This perpetuation and amplification of unequal standing is toxic for the excluded individuals and included individuals. As seen with Gamergate, asocial behavior can bleed out of online communities and this could perhaps spell trouble for the health of political systems in the real world. Biases and hostility that exist online are created by the people who are online. If a large group internalizes this hostility to people unlike themselves online; that means that they still believe it in real life which threatens the notion that citizenship and standing should be available to all. Uncivil political discourse, which results from all of the discussed psychological mechanisms and community institutional structures, is damaging to excluded individuals and it is damaging to inclusionary democratic health. Sexist thoughts that lead to harassment online are justified by echo chambers. This ability to justify misogynistic thoughts and actions online does not stay online, it can then be justified in real social situations. When sexist dehumanization takes place in reality it has real implications for female citizens’ rights and consideration in Western democratic societies.
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