The World Wide Web came into being initially as a read-only space where there was very little collaboration, communication or participation by ordinary users and online communities did not exist. But it was a matter of time before change came. Significant change came about as a result of the emergence of the transformational Web 2.0 technologies. Cyberspace became a vibrant space that encouraged community participation in content creation, sharing, collaboration and communication on such a massive scale the likes of which had never been witnessed before (Valdez Soto et al., 2016). Virtual social communities and Social Networking Sites (SNSs) began to form and grow in numbers and the platforms offered different affordances to their users such as the use of real personal identities, pseudonymity (a form of anonymity) and complete anonymity. Although there may be some negative effects of pseudonymity in online communities, there are also some significantly positive effects.
Promoting the democratic space
Pseudonymity also promotes a democratic space among Facebook community members. Democracy is built and supported by the principle of freedom of speech of all community members whatever their status or station in life was (Asenbaum, 2018). Not everyone is comfortable or confident of using their real identity online. Similarly, the freedom of association in online communities offers another pillar of support. In addition, a full democratic dispensation is also premised upon the freedom of participation. Because of the disguise of pseudonymity, it can be expected that the members can be enthusiastic about participating in the activities of the group unimpeded.
Improving community engagement
Pseudonymity improves community engagement because participation is voluntary and on equal terms. In these online communities, as on Facebook, there is a semblance of accountability. People will come together to help and make a better day for one another. For most law-abiding citizens, there is always someone willing to go the extra mile for the good of the community. Pseudonymity is a function of context; it depends on the individual’s desired outcomes. Besides the semblance of accountability, there is also the sense of responsibility towards other community members. Furthermore, pseudonymity can foster the spirit of community, inclusivity and belonging even in times of disaster (Paton & Irons, 2016).
Security of community under threat
On the other hand, pseudonymity can also threaten the security of community because it erodes the spirit of community. With reduced inhibition comes overt bad behaviours towards other members of the community. For instance, one member may become overly aggressive towards another member simply because no one can easily identify them in real life (Zimmerman at al., 2016). Arousal of aggressive emotions and their overt manifestations in online environments are more pronounced because of lowered control of unacceptable behaviours (Huesmann, 2007). Even if other community members defend the victim and report the perpetrator, the chances of a proper recourse are next to nil. There is also the potential for like-minded aggressors to coalesce together and launch a much larger offensive against the hapless victim because of sympathisers and followers. Digital aggression could potentially translate to real-world physicality if the pseudonymous characters were to identify their opponents and were in the same geographical space. In addition to reduced responsibility, member accountability diminishes. The usual community solution for this behaviour rests with the administrators and moderators who may suspend the aggressor’s account. Deception is also often a threat to the security of the community. Lastly, authenticity suffers leading to the breakdown of the glue that was keeping the community together.
Similarly, the propagation of “fake news”, lies and falsehoods about members by pseudonymous characters can also threaten the security of the community because it creates tension in the group. Children and adolescents usually fall victim to these social ills and they often have no capacity to deal with it all. It would be incumbent upon their family members, school community members or even their online community members to step in and intervene on their behalf. Reporting the perpetrators to authorities and moderators of their online communities can help stop the peddling of falsehoods. Chances are the “fake news”, lies and falsehoods will continue to be propagated across SNSs and can even become “viral” in a very short space of time. Not only that, in asynchronous communication as is the case here, perpetration of this kind of victimisation can and will carry on even long after the victim has logged off. The victims still get to know about it all from friends anyway. In any event, lies are likely going to travel faster than the truth and irreparable damage can be caused through a single insensitive comment or tweet. Because of the use of pseudonyms and tagging, there is no guarantee that this social ill can be eliminated completely. There are usually very far reaching effects that can result from falsehoods which can include behaviours associated with suicidal tendencies, self-harm and psychological challenges (David-Ferdon & Hertz, 2007). If the victim does not reach out for help or someone reaches out to them, they may just go over the edge. Nipping the source of the falsehoods, lies or “fake news” in the bud should go a long way in preventing the growth or at least reducing the fuel and oxygen that enable these horrible social ills to continue to grow unabated.
Not to be left behind, pseudonymous perverted characters can also initiate solicitation of minors and adolescents, thereby threatening the security of the community. Starting-off online, these criminal activities, if left unchecked, often escalate into real world challenges. The fact that one can never know for sure who they are talking to online, suggests that one should never trust what online acquaintances say who they are. These sex predators can go to extreme lengths hide their true details or fake them in order to lure their victims out of their safe environments and into harm’s way (Dombrowski et al., 2004). Adolescents are more likely to fall victim to sexual predators online because they may be wanting to be liked or wanting to fill a void created by some fundamental dysfunction in the family structure or home setup (Kocturk & Yuksel, 2018). While there may be other underlying issues in the victim’s real-world life, their risk of getting harmed through online encounters with pseudonymous community members is very high. For pre-adolescents it is especially risky because sexual predators usually monitor conversations in chatrooms before picking their vulnerable victims (Subrahmanyam et al., 2006). These abusers and paedophiles carefully steer their prey out of safety and into danger by persuading them to isolate themselves from other people around them (Albert, 2014). Because victims are more likely to be lacking in self-belief, or confidence in themselves, and emotionally fragile, they tend to fall for the cheap deceitful approaches of abusers. To make matters worse, these interactions may not always be explicit initially as perpetrators try to lull their targets into a false sense of security with a somewhat false relationship involvement. Offered a shoulder to cry on and or a listening ear, victims usually swallow the “hook, line and sinker” and become emotionally attached to abuse perpetrators. There is no limit to the amount of exposure of the victim to the real-world dangers of sexual abuse, victimisation, kidnapping, rape, trafficking or even death. Beyond that, if they survive, victims may suffer depression, suicidal tendencies, poor school performances, physical and psycho-social challenges (Schulz et al., 2016). As illustrated above, affordances of pseudonymity in online communities presents a significant challenge and threat to the security to the community.
Finally, the security and cohesion of online communities can be severely threatened by cyberbullying because pseudonymity provides a disguise for perpetrators. It can happen that some of the people that fall victim to bullying offline tend to endure cyberbullying as well. Cyberbullying is more prevalent especially among the youth in the 8 to 15 years age group (Spears et al., 2014). This demographic is increasingly embracing new technology gadgets and devices as well as exploring their own status in the space-time continuum. However, in their formative years they also most vulnerable and are suddenly caught up in this mammoth web of social media with very little initiation. In a space occupied by pseudonymous characters whose innate inhibition threshold is reduced, it is easy for youth to get entangled with them. The usual social media tactics employed by perpetrators, unlike in real life, are much more large-scale considering the likely numbers of people involved through tagging, Tweets, re-Tweets and the follower(s) dimension. This digital aggression (David-Ferdon and Hertz, 2007), for example, carries on even when victims have logged off the platform. Public shamming and other degrading acts are generally perpetrated by tech-savvy individuals capable of maintaining absolute pressure on their victims which may seem completely inescapable (Nilan, 2015). This relentless pressure on victims often leads to suicide, social withdrawal or far-reaching psychological damage. Because there are not many ready-made solutions to online aggression perpetrated by these online gangsters, victims usually try not to respond, described as the “avoidance strategy” (Hoff & Mitchell, 2009). This is another social ill that could initially start offline and find its way online and back offline. It could be perpetrated by pseudonymous individuals who in real life may be known or unknown to the victims. In the likelihood of them knowing each other and being in geographical proximity, there is always that possibility that escalation may even become physical offline, off or on school grounds for instance. This is a massive social problem as up to one third of youths of school-going age have reported harassment and bullying in a survey conducted in America (Low & Espelage, 2013; Nilan at al., 2015). In Australia, research studies have shown that nearly three quarters of schools have recorded or reported cyberbullying incidents (Spears et al., 2014). Pseudonyms in the era of online communities and SNSs should be unpromoted and banned, if necessary and possible, in order to create credible, trusted, transparent and therefore safe online spaces for our youth.
Privacy for community members
Pseudonymity provides for better privacy for community members. Some members of the community may want to separate their professional online identity from their real authentic private identity because there may a clash of interests. For example, one would separate the two identities in order to safeguard one’s future employment prospects from snooping prospective employers. Others, such as whistle-blowers, may want to protect themselves from political backlash or persecution by government. Still, others belonging to vulnerable groups in different demographics may want to protect themselves from prejudicial judgement based on their minority backgrounds, gender, race, creed, education or religion. There is value in protecting the privacy of all community members as it is expected and deserved right.
In spite of the fact that pseudonymous identities in online communities and Social Networks generate negative sentiments, it remains an option which is used by many community members with no harm to others. Aggressive behaviours, sexual crimes involving minors, the propagation of lies, “fake news” and falsehoods and cyberbullying are all growing social ills that can be linked to pseudonymity in online communities and SNSs. While all the scourges discussed in this paper are growing and expanding with the increased use of Web 2.0 technologies by youth, the wider community and platform owners need to decide unanimously on the way forward. There is need to balance safety online, privacy and the broader issues surrounding pseudonymous identities. Attempts to limit the damage arising from the enhanced prevalence of online based socially deviant activities discussed in this paper must be pursued methodically and resolutely. Special focus must be placed on providing psycho-social educational training to all children and youth, their guardians, families and school communities on what identity in online communities and Social Network Sites entails. Platform owners should, in the public interest, continue to weed out, suspend and ban the offending and deviant account holders. Forensic efforts by police forces around the world to locate these offenders across different geographical jurisdictions should also continue to be funded. Obviously, there is no one quick solution that will solve all the problems associated with pseudonymity online, but perhaps it is the conversation that must be had in order to create a much better online experience for all.
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