Anonymity Not Most Important Driver for Online Hate

Anita Sarkeesian is a US media critic and feminist, currently visiting Europe. She spoke this week at the Media Evolution Conference. Sarkeesian was the victim of an especially vicious example of online-hate, following her criticism of how women are portrayed in some video games. Her videos on the topic discuss phenomena such as “the damsel in distress” and depictions violence against women. This inspired some internet users to launch a virtual hate campaign, including edited photos of Sarkeesian’s face in pornographic pictures,  hacks of her Wikipedia-page, hate-mail and many other intimidating examples. In her speech, Anita Sarkeesian explained how even the anti-abuse function on some internet services (like Youtube) was used for abuse. By reporting her videos as abusive, the cyber-mob could effectively take down Sarkeesian’s videos and force her to spend hours to get them back up. This is an important learning, implementing an abuse-function is not enough for an internet platform to act responsibly – it must be a part of a strategy involving human functions and a transparent rule-set to be effective.

Even more interestingly, Anita Sarkeesian says it is not necessarily the anonymity online that enabled the cyber-harassment. Many of her bullies acted in the open, on their own blogs or social media pages. Rather, it is a sort of group psychology where participants challenge each other to do even more atrocious deeds. Once somebody had hacked Sarkeesian’s Wikipedia page or written hateful comments, they would instantly post screen grabs on their pages to brag about it. It seems it is the echo chamber phenomenon that can occur in social networks and the perceived distance and de-humanisation of the object that fuels online hate, rather than anonymity – which is otherwise often suggested as the explanation (also by Netopia, I should add).