Posts Tagged ‘Anonymity’

Social media anonymity encourages and nurtures the herd mentality

August 14, 2013

It seems to me that the anonymity afforded by social media encourages and nurtures the “herd” mentality in human behaviour. A herd mentality is the essence of “mob behaviour” and it would seem that social media – like mobs – remove or suppress the controls and judgement calls that individual behaviour is usually subject to. I suspect that it is the anonymity available together with the potential for a “flash, online crowd”  which together contribute to reaching the “critical mass” needed for the establishment of an “unthinking mob”.

Mob behaviour is characterised by being reactive and where individuals try to “outdo” the behaviour of their fellows under the cover of being anonymous. But it needs a sufficient number of individuals to reach some critical mass to qualify as a mob. It is visible in the positive sense during rapturous calls for an encore after a concert and in the reaction to high oratory. Or it shows up in a negative way in the behaviour of a lynch mob or in the reaction to the speech of a demagogue. It has shown up in the on-line, “mob-bullying” by social media of some vulnerable teenagers which has even led to their suicides. It shows up with the internet trollls hovering on the fringes looking for a “mob” to join on-line.

A member of a mob gains anonymity in the crowd and his individual actions – while contributing to the behaviour of the mob as a whole – are no longer identifiable as the actions of a specific individual. More importantly the individual behaviour is not subject to identification or to being sanctioned. Just as with a stampeding herd of impala being chased by a predator, it is anonymity and running faster than your neighbour but still staying within the mob which provides this perception of protection. It is this feeling of being protected – I think – which switches off the normal human need for risk assessment and rational judgement to be applied before actions and which shifts behaviour away from the conscious plane. Aping and “outdoing” your “neighbour” from within the mob is then prioritised over the exercise of mind and judgement.

A new study shows that what we “like” on social media clearly exhibits a “herd mentality” and depends mainly on what others before us and around us have “liked”. It seems that random “dislikes” however are compensated for.

Lev Muchnik, Sinan Aral and Sean J. Taylor, Social influence bias: a randomized experiment. Science. Vol. 341, 9 August 2013, p. 647. doi: 10.1126/science.1240466

(The paper is paywalled but there is a related discussion here  with the authors about “The effect of free access on the diffusion of scholarly ideas”)

AbstractOur society is increasingly relying on the digitized, aggregated opinions of others to make decisions. We therefore designed and analyzed a large-scale randomized experiment on a social news aggregation Web site to investigate whether knowledge of such aggregates distorts decision-making. Prior ratings created significant bias in individual rating behavior, and positive and negative social influences created asymmetric herding effects. Whereas negative social influence inspired users to correct manipulated ratings, positive social influence increased the likelihood of positive ratings by 32% and created accumulating positive herding that increased final ratings by 25% on average. This positive herding was topic-dependent and affected by whether individuals were viewing the opinions of friends or enemies. A mixture of changing opinion and greater turnout under both manipulations together with a natural tendency to up-vote on the site combined to create the herding effects. Such findings will help interpret collective judgment accurately and avoid social influence bias in collective intelligence in the future.

ScienceNews writes:

When rating things online, people tend to follow the herd. A single random “like” can influence a comment’s score at a social news site, researchers report in the Aug. 9 Science.

Users of the site discuss news articles and rate each other’s comments with “up votes” (positive ratings) and “down votes” (negative ratings). Votes affect each comment’s overall score. To test whether previous ratings sway users, Sinan Aral of MIT and colleagues randomly assigned all comments submitted to the site over a five-month period an up vote, a down vote or no vote.

An unearned up vote packed a surprising punch. The first person to view a randomly liked comment was 32 percent more likely to rate it positively than to do the same with a comment that had received no vote. In the long run, boosted comments’ final scores were 25 percent higher than scores of untouched comments. Random negative votes did not affect a comment’s final rating because users compensated with extra up votes.

The findings may help researchers analyze herding behavior or manipulation in other kinds of rating systems, including electoral polls and stock market predictions, the authors suggest.

Being on-line and anonymous does not eliminate accountability and responsibility

March 6, 2013

The Washington Post considers the pluses and minuses of anonymity in the on-line world but typically just stays on the fence. “It’s complicated”. In an abundance of indecision and of  “political correctness” it reaches no conclusion.

But I take a rather simplistic and uncomplicated view. “On-line” is just one more medium through which “publishing” can take place. This medium may be much more immediate and with greater global spread than other media. But whatever the medium may be, responsibility and accountability for what is published cannot just vanish. It cannot just disappear into some black hole between an author and his publisher. Either the publisher or the author must take responsibility and be accountable for whatever is published. The publisher controls the medium. Whether he wishes to allow anonymity or not is his prerogative. But if the publisher (the on-line web-site host) allows his authors to keep their identities secret from the public then he must take responsibility and be accountable for what is published.  It is also then his call as to whether he himself wishes to know the identity of those using the platform he provides. Where, however, the author is publicly identified then the publisher is effectively indemnified.

Where comments (on a blog or a web-site or a forum) are allowed anonymously then applying moderation is the host’s call but he cannot escape the responsibility or the accountability for the content he allows.

Anonymity does not eliminate responsibility and accountability. It merely shifts responsibility from the author to the publisher. The buck has to stop somewhere.

Washington Post: It shields the whistleblower from blowback and the deep-background source from getting deep-sixed. It helped women publish novels way back when . . . when that was a pretty novel idea. But it can also embolden the kook to get kookier and the racist to get . . . well, you get the picture.

….. Fey and Pexton, whose thoughts have gotten the viral launch that only a lengthy discussion on NBC’s “Today” show can provide, veer toward an age-old question. Does anonymity make us good? Or does it make us bad? And now that we’ve had a good long while to get used to splashing around online, there’s another question to ponder: Does the Internet make it easier for us to be anonymously bad or anonymously better?

The answer isn’t so simple. Consider 4Chan, a hugely popular and emphatically anonymous Internet board that began as a place to discuss Japanese anime and has swelled into dozens of boards focused on everything from “science & math” to “Sexy Beautiful Women.”

The site can get raunchy. The posters can get rough with each other. Anonymity has the effect of making the users less inhibited, said Michael S. Bernstein, who studied the site’s “/b/ – random” board with colleagues at MIT and the University of Southampton in Britain. That lack of inhibition has led to plenty of “gore, pornography and racism,” Bernstein, now a computer science professor at Stanford University, said in an interview.

But amid all the offensive behavior, Bernstein and his fellow researchers also found that anonymity had a lot of positive effects. One of the most notable was the creation of a culture that fostered experimentation and new ideas. Since no names were being used, the users felt more comfortable taking risks. They’ve ended up contributing to the creation of an Internet culture and to a proliferation of memes. ….

…. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of the respected journal Science, was concerned enough to commission a study that concluded anonymity was something worth striving to preserve. “There was talk at the time about making anonymity difficult or impossible,” said Albert H. Teich, a professor at George Washington University who was director of science and policy programs at AAAS when the study was released.

The scientists wanted the Internet to be a place where political opinions could be expressed freely without fear of repercussions; where, say, a teen struggling to come to grips with his sexuality could discreetly seek advice.

…. Still, he’s torn. Terrorism gives him an argument against anonymity. Protecting contacts who were helping AAAS combat human rights violations in Central America gives him a reason to protect anonymity. …..

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