by Dylan Evans (ACE, CEH, CHFI, A+, Network+), Digital Forensic Investigator for Custer Agency Inc.
When was the last time somebody a total stranger walked up to your face and spat in your eye while simultaneously insulting your life choices? Maybe they punched you in the stomach afterward, and then spraypainted an angry caricature of your face on your car window for good measure?
If you’re like most people, this situation isn’t something that happens very often (if it’s a common occurrence, my heart goes out to you and I suggest taking up martial arts lessons), but on the internet that is a different picture altogether. We live in a world where “cyberbullying” leads to teenage suicides, poor Google and Yelp ratings can lead to total business shutdown, and as in the case of Justine Sacco, a single tweet can end a career and completely ruin a person’s reputation for the rest of their life. As innocent and pointless as social media may seem, the fact remains that our modern society is chained to it by the throat. It’s a near-impossibility to walk a block down the road and not see “Like Us on Facebook” or the Twitter icon on everything from park benches to milk cartons.
Spend two minutes reading the comments section of any given YouTube video, and one thing becomes clear: the internet is not a nice place. The seemingly endless wellspring of vitriol and negativity that pours out of the web like a backed up toilet seems to be at odds with the behavior expected from a civilized society. Why, then, is there such a harsh juxtaposition between people’s public behavior and how they act online? To quote Oscar Wilde, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
Dr. John Suler, Professor of Psychology at Rider University, is one of the world’s foremost experts in this phenomenon, which he has dubbed the “Online Disinhibition Effect.” As he identifies in his 2004 titular paper, people’s behavior online is the result of lowered inhibitions due to a high degree of perceived anonymity that is not present in real face-to-face interactions. 
“There’s a large crowd and you can act out in front of it without paying any personal price to your reputation,” says Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at New York University who studies social and economic effects of Internet technologies, and this “creates conditions most likely to draw out the typical Internet user’s worst impulses.”  Clearly, this type of environment can lead to discussions and outward expressions of a person’s most deeply-buried rage that would not manifest in real face-to-face interactions.
Dr. Suler identifies six key components to the “online disinhibition effect:” dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority. More simply, a person in the throes of online disinhibition feels that their audience doesn’t know them and can’t see them. They feel that, given the post-and-respond nature of internet discussions, they can leave the conversation whenever they want, and because of the impersonal nature of the situation they tend to feel like it’s more “in their head” and game-like than a real human interaction. The behavior is finally cemented by the internet being largely unregulated, with a lack of central authority and overall consequences for a user’s actions.
In a nutshell, the particular nuances of internet communication – specifically the combination of perceived anonymity and the removal of the perception that the other people in the conversation are real human beings – leads to a perfect storm of conditions that tends to bring out the worst in people. Internet trolls see it like a video game; they pop in, spray some offensive virtual graffiti, and disappear back into the real world and their real lives, almost like they’re controlling a game character instead of representing themselves as a person. Likewise, the people they offend are perceived as mere background elements of an artificial world, not as living breathing people.
If the internet existed like it 1990s – in a space almost entirely separate from the real world, occupied by a fringe minority of the population– this wouldn’t be so bad, but unfortunately, that is far from our modern reality. Nearly every person, business, and object is connected to the internet, and as we have explored, lives can be permanently ruined in 140 characters or less. Like a terrifying cybernetic elephant, the internet never forgets.
So what does all of this mean for businesses, especially regarding online reputation management? Simple: be aware of the threat, and be cautious. We live in an interesting time where online content can have serious, long-reaching real world effects – good and bad – for individuals and business entities while simultaneously dealing with the fact that the very users creating that content express themselves as if they’re merely playing a game.
There is nothing stopping an angry customer, disgruntled employee, or scorned ex from starting a false rumor campaign and getting their social media followers behind it. If you think this doesn’t happen on a daily basis, think again. Businesses have been ruined by simple misunderstandings that turned into Facebook rants, and with the advent of “sharing”, those rants are given the opportunity to live forever online. Social media users just click “like,” “share,” and move on with their day, but with every click the false rumors replicates, spreading like cancer across the internet.
Consider the following case, which happened right here in Boise: A local small business was hiring for a position, and rejected a particular applicant’s resume. That applicant was so offended that he started a Facebook page for a fictitious class-action lawsuit against the business, claiming that their services caused damage to their customers’ property. The angry applicant took things further and created several fake Facebook pages for the business employees, and proceeded to send angry and threatening messages to the business’s real customers. One of those customers was so offended that he took a screenshot of the message, posted it on his Facebook timeline, and called for a boycott of the business.
That post was subsequently shared over one thousand times. The rumors spread so far, one of the local news stations volunteered to do a story on all the alleged damages caused by the business and the owner’s “offensive outbursts,” without ever bothering to validate the source of that information.
The real business owner had no idea this whole situation was happening until a news crew showed up outside his office.
What I have described is, unfortunately, a growing problem, and a prime example of the real world consequences that can result from online disinhibition. When a person feels they are safely anonymous and they have an audience, the smallest bit of anger can be amplified to a terrifying magnitude.
Again, as far as online reputation management goes, the biggest takeaway is to be aware and to be cautious. A little-misplaced anger can go a long way, so don’t take the threat of trolls lightly. At the same time, the worst thing that a business could do is purposely avoid the internet altogether in an attempt to hide from the vitriolic fringe. No matter what, if you upset somebody they will take it online. Instead of just letting rumors and rage freely poison your reputation, why not be present to provide a counterargument?
How do you do that? Stay engaged with your online audience. Whatever business you’re in, be transparent, be open, and make your dedication to integrity obvious. Having a community of positive supporters behind you can easily drown out the screaming of an online troll, but if you aren’t engaging with your audience, the only voice that will be heard is the offended one.
To quote Napoleon Bonaparte, “Ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent.” By regularly engaging with your online audience and truly listening to them as individuals, a business creates a community of supporters that can drown out even the most fervent of trolls.
And if you’re responding to someone online, try to remember they’re a real person. Don’t virtually punch them in the face, because you might give them a serious headache in the real world.
 – Suler, John (2004). “The Online Disinhibition Effect”. CyberPsychology & Behavior 7 (3): 321–326. doi:10.1089/1094931041291295. Retrieved 10 March 2013.
 – Doig, Will (February 26, 2008). “Homophobosphere”. The Advocate (1002). Retrieved January 24, 2010.