As a young person in the UK, I recall citizen’s band radio becoming a big thing for a short while. “Breaker breaker, one nine for a copy…” You could use these transmitters and receivers to talk to friends or strangers over the airwaves. You could even attempt to talk to friends as if you were a stranger. Unfortunately, even with my voice disguised, my acquaintances could nearly always tell it was me.
The internet, however, has ushered in an age of anonymity and pseudonymity in which communication with strangers is both easy and familiar. Social scientists refer to this type of online presence as transient anonymity, a digital mask that can enable certain freedom of expression, but also enable antisocial behaviour and create new kinds of criminality.
Dubai Police recently published cybercrime statistics for the past three years. There were 2,606 crimes, with the main categories reported as fraud, hacking and threats of blackmail. These figures also seem to be on the rise. Most worrying of all, this appears to be especially true of cases where children are the victims. Dubai is not alone; the UK's Office for National Statistics estimated that around 4.5 million cybercrimes were committed in England and Wales during 2018.
There are many factors involved in internet-enabled and internet-specific crime, but anonymity is a big one. Information technology has allowed us, if we so choose, to weave our own cloaks of invisibility. Even perfectly normal, law-abiding individuals, once emboldened and disinhibited by imagined anonymity, might begin to act out of character. For some, that can mean straying beyond the boundaries of social norms into antisocial behaviour – for example, rudeness and a disregard for the feelings of other, similarly anonymous users. For others, it can mean the expression of extreme prejudices or committing outright criminal acts.
A number of psychological studies have begun exploring how antisocial personalities play out online. This research generally concludes that online anonymity magnifies existing antisocial tendencies. One study, published last year in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, looked at cyberbullying among 1,047 seventh and eighth-grade children. The findings suggest that online anonymity led to those with a propensity towards cruel and insensitive behaviour acting in a similar, but more intense manner while online. One fairly obvious explanation for this effect is that online anonymity provides immunity from the social pressures of offline existence. In other words, online anonymity can protect us from shame.
Shame is the emotional consequence of breaking a social rule, intentionally or unintentionally. Shame is a deeply uncomfortable emotion to experience. The threat of it and the negative judgement of our peers acts as a deterrent against many forms of antisocial and criminal behaviour. However, it becomes far easier for us to break social rules, and even laws, when we are shielded by online anonymity.
On a wider scale, online anonymity is also a critical factor in the spread of fake news. Rather than a few individuals trying to con or blackmail a single victim, fake news scams can involve armies of anonymous online trolls attempting to con entire nations and subvert political processes and public opinion. This was a major topic discussed at last week's Arab Media Forum in Dubai, where there were calls for new legislation to protect legitimate news sources.
However, that is not to say that the internet is an environment where shame does not exist at all. Far from it. Lately, the culture of online shaming has ballooned, with large numbers of social media users quick to hold to account people they deem to have broken social rules.
In some cases, poor online behaviour deserves to be called out. However, the ferocity of online shaming can sometimes push it into the territory of the antisocial behaviour it seeks to decry. In his book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, the author and journalist, Jon Ronson, documents how offhand comments or photographs posted on social media can result in a pile-on with lasting real-world consequences. Livelihoods and personal relationships can be destroyed, for what are, sometimes, only minor social transgressions.
To protect us against such problems, the UAE has enacted robust laws to prevent – among other online issues such as hacking and fraud – people using social media to invade the privacy of others. Posting a picture of someone illegally parked in a disabled spot, for example, is just as likely to get the poster in trouble as it is the parking violator.
Beyond the law, the developing field of cyberpsychology explores all psychological phenomena associated with or impacted by emerging technology. The rising rates of cybercrime and issues of privacy and online anonymity are fertile areas of research for those interested in this emerging field. Both cyberpsychology and the closely related discipline of cyber-criminology have a crucial role to play in helping us to better understand the social and behavioural implications of the internet.
Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University