The Online Disinhibition Effect

Broken LaptopWhen I used to teach (nowadays I mentor), I would talk to my students at length about the online disinhibition effect and its potential ramifications on social interactions and deindividuation.  Basically, people act like idiots online because their inhibitions are out the window with the guise of anonymity through a computer or mobile device…so they say and do things online they would most likely not do in person.  For example, in the comment section of a post of mine from 4 years ago about circumcision (a heated online topic) many of the pro-circ crowd used lewd phrases and mocked people who were not circumcized while the anti-circ crowd used internet-based information to convey hearsay as fact and used lewd phrases as well.  In those comments I was accused of wanting to have homosexual sex with my unborn son, was called a barbaric mutilator who should be locked in jail for the rest of my life, and I received multiple death threats.  Many of the comments were so shocking I had to remove them.  The question I had posed was simply to gather people’s thoughts.  This is the online disinhibition effect.  No one in their right mind would have said some of the things they posted had they been face-to-face with me.

In debate, these tactics are referred to as intellectually dishonest.  I find many people think they are great at online debating when in fact they are great at flaming or trolling social media.  Silencing your counter debater with slurs, attacks, subject changes, hearsay, and irrelevant logic is intellectually dishonest…though they are the foundation of online conversation, the result of deindividuation, and the tools of disinhibition.

Boba Fett

The other day I engaged in some fun online banter that quickly took a turn (as to be expected) to dishonest debate as my counter debaters (A) changed the subject, (B) used sarcasm to deflect the subject, (C) used irrelevant logic, (D) used hearsay as fact, (E) questioned my motives as a deflection tactic, and (F) presented logic that plays to the fantasies & fears of the group participating.  So I bowed out of the conversation and the counter debaters marked it as a victory.  That’s how most conversations go online.  That’s how most US politicians debate.  That is how debate and critical dialogue is devolving.  Now, I’m guilty of this technique as well and use it quite frequently on my friends when tipping beers and debating trivial topics like if Boba Fett is really a badass bounty hunter or an idiot who got knocked into the mouth of Sarlacc during the Battle of the Great Pit of Carkoon.  It is also great for poking fun at Doug Gottlieb via Twitter when he openly attacks the city of Wichita and then deletes all his tweets in an attempt to not look like an idiot.  However, this form of debate online isn’t always jovial fun…it is dangerous.

Harley Brown
Harley Brown for Governer

As I mentioned, in the comments about my circ post and by email an anonymous user threatened my life…which is a criminal offense.  Would that person have committed such an act had he or she been standing in front of me in a public forum?  Do we not see how public online conversation is?  I ask myself this question all the time and remember my father’s advice to me when I was in middle school:  I was a scrawny kid interested in art at a school where everyone played football.  I was bullied daily.  Then I grew 8 inches in a year and learned how to fight…and beat up all my bullies and threatened any kid who even looked at me wrong.  (In so, I became the bully)  My dad had told me to ignore the bullies.  He told me to ignore the slurs and eventually they’d get bored and leave me alone.  He told me to learn to walk away from bad situations…and that is not an easy thing to do.  In intellectually dishonest online “debate,” I have found leaving the conversation is often the best tactic…the intellectually honest tactic.  In debate you are taught to (A) argue the facts and know what you are talking about, (B) be honest in your arguments, and (C) point out errors in your opponent’s logic and/or facts.  Online, you are most likely debating an old friend on social media and all of their like-minded friends or a complete stranger.  Due to the online disinhibition effect you have to ask yourself: “Are you willing to risk losing your friendship over the subject matter?”  “Are you willing to waste your time on a flaming/trolling stranger?”  In my case, I found the answer to be “no” as I value my friendship and and left the conversation before it went from poking fun to heated commentating.

So, as you browse the internet and chat with friends, friends of friends, and total strangers…ask yourself if you are accurately representing yourself as “you” online or if you have created a more confident version of yourself, who – through deindividuation – acts in a way the real “you” would abhor in a face-to-face interaction.  The rules of debate don’t apply in the real world but they are the foundation of critical dialogue, conversation of differing opinions, and the remedy for the online disinhibition effect.  Be sure you represent yourself online in a way you would in person.


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