<span class='p-name'>Online disinhibition effect</span>

Online disinhibition effect

This week I spent some time actually scrolling through my Facebook feed and came across a post in which a friend shared a video of what was labeled as “Antifa on traffic duty in Portland, Oregon” from the Facebook Page for The Conservative Treehouse. The Conservative Treehouse has been described as posting “conservative-leaning stories that sometimes include misinformation” by FactCheck.Org from the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Please note that there is language that is NSFW in the video above…if you click through.

The video shows what are supposed to be members of the Antifa movement blocking traffic in an intersection. What ensues is a lot of cursing, threats, and anger. I watched the video and was a bit shocked after spending some time reviewing the comments to the video left behind by my friend…and his Facebook friends. This led to some extended time reviewing the comments on the original video posted by The Conservative Treehouse. I don’t recommend clicking through to review those comments either.

What shocked me from the comments was an indication of a desire to “drive right through them” or “I’d run there asses over and not think twice !!!!🇺🇸🇺🇸”

Heading back to the comments left by my Facebook friend and acquaintances, there were several comments about striking the protestors with vehicles, but these comments were outweighed by questions about shooting individuals in public.

After reviewing the video, and comments, I can understand the anger, frustration, and fear that would be brought about by a group that intentionally redirects traffic and then curses at you. I spent my first decade driving either in New Jersey, Massachusetts, or in-between. All of these places have special, unflattering names for these types of drivers. And…I’ve frequently experienced road rage, especially now that I have two children in the back seat ordering me around.

But, even with this subtle balance between freedom of speech and/or expression, and not infringing on the rights of others (ability to drive down the street in peace), I have a problem with the open willingness to threaten the livelihood of others, including bodily harm. This may be the 8th grade teacher coming out in me, but I believe here are other ways to handle a situation. I also believe that words may hurt. We’ve also seen too many instances lately where bullets, vehicles, and other instruments can do far worse.

In this current climate where online discourse spurs offline vitriol, anger, and actions, I wonder about whether these commenters actually believe what they’re sharing in these online spaces. I wonder if some of these commenters are bots, or trolls meant to sow discord. Knowing the friend that originally shared and commented on the video, I know that this is a good person, and the comments may have been made in person, but as a form of “gallows humor.” But, it still makes me question the thinking around saying things online that you would never say in public.

What is online disinhibition?

Online disinhibition is the lack of restraint one feels when communicating online in comparison to communicating in-person. This is usually composed of factors including anonymity, invisibility, asynchronous communication, empathy deficit, in addition to individual factors like personality and culture background.

Online disinhibition effect was coined by John Suler in 2004, a Professor of Psychology at Rider University in a paper called The Online Disinhibition Effect. In it, Suler posits that the manifestations of such an effect could be in both positive and negative directions. Thus online disinhibition could be classified as benign disinhibition or toxic disinhibition. 

Benign disinhibition. We’re more likely to open up, show vulnerability, and share our deepest fears. We help others, and we give willingly to strangers on sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter.

Toxic disinhibition. We’re more likely to harass, abuse, and threaten others when we can’t see their face. We indulge our darkest desires. We hurt people because it’s easy.

Adding the Internet

There are multiple ways in which digital, social spaces facilitate both benign and toxic disinhibition. Here’s three examples of what these factors might facilitate.

Anonymity. Have you ever visited an unfamiliar city and enjoyed the fact that no one knew you? You could come and go as you please. You could become anyone you wanted; you could do anything. We often never have the opportunity to experience that level of anonymity in our offline lives. Think about how you’re perceived by your family, friends, and co-workers. How often do you have the opportunity to indulge in unexpected—and potentially unwanted—thoughts, opinions, and activities?

Anonymity is a cloak of invisibility. It allows us to take on another identity or personality (for better or worse), while we’re online. We may choose to overemphasize some of our traits while online. We also may choose to act in a completely opposite manner from our offline identity. If we’re kind in our real lives, we may indulge in a bit of unkindness online. If we typically keep our opinions to ourselves, we may shout them all the louder on the Internet.

Invisibility. Anonymity is also a cloak that renders us, and the people we interact with, invisible. When we don’t have to look someone in the eye in communication, it’s much, much easier to succumb to our worst instincts.

…the opportunity to be physically invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect… Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can inhibit what people are willing to express…

(Suler, 2004)

Solipsistic Introjection & Dissociative Imagination. When we’re online, it feels like we exist in a dream state. We exist only in our imagination, and our communications and actions are simply voices in our heads. Many of us have an inner voice in which we feel free to think and “say” the things we would never say publicly. As such, some people view the Internet, and social media as a form of this inner speech in which they can say things they would normally never say publicly.

Online, social spaces can be a vacation to our imagination where we are free to think, speak, and communicate as we see fit. We are free from the overwhelming responsibilities and ramifications of our actions in the real world. Using the Internet as a communicative space that is viewed as the “non-real” world, it is easier to say those things we wouldn’t say in real life.

Online text communication can evolve into an introjected psychological tapestry in which a person’s mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usually unconsciously and with considerable disinhibition.

(Suler, 2004)

Valuing online inhibitions

The Internet is the dominant text of our generation. We use it to read, write, communicate, and socialize with others. For many individuals, it is the primary means of socialization, or connector for friendship. For better or worse, the world’s citizens are much more connected globally then we were before. With this globally connected third space, there is also a sense of isolation as we’re learning how to adapt to these new versions of social activity, closeness, and intimacy.

With great power comes great responsibility. The internet brings out both the best and the worst in us. The Internet can allow us to do incredible things, it can also allow hate to collect and pool. In learning contexts, we often wonder would you ever say that to me in class? Given that dichotomy, Suler might suggest that benign disinhibition brings us together and toxic disinhibition rips us apart.

Saying things in digital spaces it may seem less real, more impersonal, and even dehumanizing because the person you are addressing may be unknown and not physically in front of you. We need to consider that our society is slowly coming to terms with these digital identities that we construct. We also need to understand that our communications are asynchronous in nature. This means that the trail of comments, likes, and links stays around long after we’ve moved on.

People may also say things online because it’s safer. They view digital, social spaces as a form of confessional in which they can offer their thoughts to a faceless audience. They may have tried to express themselves to others, but the face-to-face conversations did not go well, and this mode and venue makes it easier to communicate. This is especially true if the content being communicated is mean-spirited or hateful. 

As we adjust to these new, digital, social spaces, we need to understand that these discourse practices are very real. These comments can cause grief, pain, or simply annoy. We also need to consider how we’ll respond when we see others exhibiting signs of online toxic disinhibition. Will we simply keep quiet and in a sense support these behaviors, or will we notice and name this as hateful, harmful language. Individuals, and society in general are trying to adapt tho these new discourses and literacy practices. As we make these transitions, we have to understand that we’re all human, and we can be guilty of this from time to time. We also need to remember that there are humans on the other side of the screen. The effects and impacts of our communications may have unintended, offline effects.

Image Credits

7 Comments Online disinhibition effect

  1. Pingback: How to respond to trolling behaviors | W. Ian O'Byrne

  2. Aaron Davis

    This is an interesting discussion Ian. I have been thinking about the online/off dualism while reading Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Teargas:

    Rather than connecting with people who are like them only in ascribed characteristics — things we mostly acquire from birth, like family, race, and social class (though this one can change throughout one’s life)—many people have the opportunity to seek connections with others who share similar interests and motivations. Of course, place, race, family, gender, and social class continue to play a very important role in structuring human relationships—but the scope and the scale of their power and their role as a social mechanism have shifted and changed as modernity advanced.(Page 10)

    I am really intrigued by Tufekci’s discussion of the networked public sphere.



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