Ladies, that guy who put his hand on your bum after a few drinks, and then apologizes several days later saying it was the alcohol, is lying. He wanted to do it while sober. Only the alcohol made it easier to ignore social norms and repercussions. In reality, it is when he is sober that he is lying! He was more truthful when the whiskey sours lowered his inhibitions.
And so it is with the online environment. Several online media outlets, such as NPR and Huffington Post, have banned anonymous comments because they tend to be vitriolic and disrespectful – especially to women. But there is truth in these comments because social norms are weakened and inhibitions are lowered.
Trump and the Trolls
Pollsters, politicians, and prognosticators were blindsided by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election. As was I. However, I can remember speaking to a colleague about Trump, back when he was one of several candidates vying to be the Republican nominee. I distinctly remember saying to her that the Trump campaign is more viable than people think. Trump, in my view, was speaking to a disgruntled electorate.
My views at that time were informed by some research I had done on White Nationalist (now called the alt-right). I had explored a collection of websites, blogs, and podcasts that had several organizing themes. First was the idea that America should be a white nation, and that non-whites and non-Christians were inherently antithetical to the values and success of the country. Second, the influx of non-whites had already been detrimental. Since America began becoming less white, the argument went, the economy and international position of America had deteriorated. Third, this weakening of white Christian America was organized and led by a band of Marxist elites – primarily Jewish. I could see at that time that if one removed the distasteful veneer of overt racism from these ideas – for example, removing Jewish and replacing it with Washington – they were very appealing to working class white voters. These groups were articulating ideas that if expressed in public, would mean they would be excoriated and ostracized. In this way, they were speaking a truth that could only be expressed online.
I could not (and still can’t) quantify how many different voices were in these spaces, but my idea is that it is much more than mainstream America would like to admit. I believe this because on every anonymous space where comments are allowed I see these themes. We have given a name to the people who post these types of comments – trolls. These trolls are dismissed as being mindless, racist, misogynistic, and nativist. That may be true. But their opinions are genuine – not people just trying to get a rise out of someone else.
And this is why I was a bit more prepared for Donald Trump than most.
Deindividuation and Disinhibition
There are theoretical reasons why anonymity reveals truths. One reason, called deindividuation, suggests that people loose their individual identity in groups. Whatever their identity was as an individual – “I am a reasonable man who respects others” – becomes lost in the values and norms of the group – “I am a member of group X that finds illegal immigrant abhorrent, and in this group we call immigrants names”. Another reason, called disinhibition, suggests that people abandon the social norms and restrictions that they have learned in the physical environment when they enter into the digital environment.
Both theories predict, albeit for different reasons, that going online produces different and unique behaviors. I think these behaviors are “truthful” in that they are more representative of people’s beliefs and potential actions than anything they can say in a survey or focus group. In the case of deindividuation, the actions that occur while identifying with the group reveal how one will act when that group identity becomes salient. If a person identifies as a Trump supporter, but never tells you, then you really don’t know what they will do until they must act as a Trump supporter. In the case of disinhibition, when people are not being monitored – such as in a voting booth – they can express themselves without any social repercussions. They are no longer inhibited, as it were, and can vote as they see fit.
I am a fanatical believer in free speech. It is the only way to ensure that people can speak truth to power in a peaceful democracy. Groups living in autocracies have their own way of speaking truth to power, and that is with armed coups. All things considered, I prefer the free speech route.
Instead of banning anonymous comments, or simply dismissing them as mad ravings, it is better to acknowledge that they are indicators of people’s true sentiments about an issue. This understanding will allow us to embrace these comments and develop metrics of political opinion. If academics and pollsters would have accepted the truth of trolls, they may not have been blindsided by Trump’s victory.