Anonymity – the dark side of social media

disguiseAs authors, we all know that discoverability is the up side of social media. If we manage to harness the massive power of the social networks, and the positive word-of-mouth recommendations they generate, we have a better chance of being read. And, of course, once we have a readership, we also have a better chance of actually earning some money from our work.

But what happens when the buzz on social media turns sour?

I’m not talking about the odd, poor review here. Those definitely call for a dignified turning of the other cheek. What I am talking about are those hate campaigns in which a flood of virulent, 1-star reviews suddenly appear out of nowhere.

None of my books have ever been subjected to the hate treatment, but I have seen a hate campaign directed against a fellow Indie, and it was not pretty. Based on the popularity of her previous novel, the launch of her latest novel should have seen a big spike in sales. It didn’t happen, largely thanks to all the scathing, 1-star reviews which drowned out the positive ones.

More recently, a carpet cleaning company in the US was subjected to a hate campaign as well, and its business plummeted by almost 30%. The hate campaign was waged on the Yelp website. Coincidentally, the campaign began after the carpet company declined to advertise on Yelp.

Yelp denies any connection between the refusal to advertise and the hate campaign, however it also refuses to divulge the identities of those taking part in the campaign, citing freedom of speech. The case is going through the court system.

And then this morning, I woke to find five comments on my blog, all from the same source, and all complaining about an online company that has nothing to do with me. The reason those complaints landed on my digital doorstep is because I wrote a couple of glowing posts about two of that company’s products. The interesting thing, however, was that I could not find out who had left those complaints. Not only were they ‘nameless’, they were also ‘linkless’ – i.e. I could not trace them back to any sort of online presence.

Now, I’m reasonably tech smart, but I have no idea how you would go about making anonymous comments that are also invisible. That leads me to wonder how an ordinary, disgruntled customer would have the tech-savvy to cover their tracks so well.

And this brings me to the heart of the problem – online anonymity. On the one hand, being able to hide behind a fictitious handle [or nickname] can be very liberating, allowing shy people to have their say without fear of reprisals. Unfortunately, that same anonymity can also be used by malicious, or fraudulent, people to do real damage in the real world, also without fear of reprisal.

In the real world, freedom of speech is balanced by the laws against libel and slander. I’m no lawyer, but I understand that to mean you can say whatever you like so long as you can prove that what you say is true. To prove your case, however, you have to have a real world identity, i.e. you cannot be anonymous. No such checks and balances apply to the digital world, at least not yet.

I personally believe that digital anonymity is fair in a purely social setting. I do not, however, believe that anonymity is fair in an e-commerce setting where dollars and cents bridge the divide between the real world and the digital one. If the producers of goods cannot be anonymous, then neither should their detractors.

33 thoughts on “Anonymity – the dark side of social media”

  1. Follow the money. That’s how to find who can, and who does remain anonymous. But we little guys don’t have money, so ………

    Our world is, in some ways, becoming scarier than ever.

    1. It is indeed, Yvonne. Who would have thought social media could lead to so many negative consequences? I guess this is one of those examples where new tech really does change the way we live.

    1. Thanks TD. 🙂 Just off topic for a moment – has Tassie greened up as much as Victoria? I’m suddenly seeing green where just 2 weeks ago there was only dry, brown dirt. Love autumn!

  2. Enjoyed the article and agree very much. It is a double edged sword and I think you are part of the solution here in that it takes an educated eye to distinguish who is using the freedom from reprisal to express their true feeling or reaction to a product or work of art and who is cyber-bulling. In some cases it is obvious, other times not so much. People need to be discriminating when considering different view points as well has hold a high index of suspicion when they see pilling on or a feeding frenzy of bad comments or ratings,

    1. Thanks Ed. I truly don’t believe anyone can have true freedom unless they also take responsibility for their own actions. Hopefully the digital world will slowly catch up to the real world in this regard.

  3. I’d just like to say a quick thank you to Kat for the amazing visual images that accompany all our posts. I particularly love this one. You rock, Kat!

  4. That is the scariest thing I have read to date on Social Media. From the first day of my writing career to this, I have always used my real name on blog posts and on my books. I cannot keep up with nicknames. And the sites that require it, I seldom visit.
    Interesting post.
    Jackie Weger

    1. I’m used to having a ‘handle’ on games, but like you I’ve been out there as myself everywhere else. I try not to offend anyone out of simple courtesy, but I’ll also wear the consequences if I do offend. Seems fair to me.

  5. Excellent article. The negative smears are scary, especially when you consider the long ‘shelf-life’ of the Internet, which is essentially forever.

  6. This is a reasonably stated (as in lacking in hyperbole) take on this subject which is unusual compared to most of the things I’ve seen recently about it around the net.I liked that you used the Yelp example in that it took this beyond the normal vicious reviewers attack innocent authors story I usually see. Since I view this from a different angle than you and most (all?) of those commenting thus far, I guess it is up to me to take the contrary view. 🙂

    I’m one of those “anonymous” reviewers (although anyone with an ounce of stalking skill can easily pierce my anonymity) I’d like to keep whatever anonymity I have though.

    Your last paragraph appears reasonable, but in fact that isn’t true. Both the producers (authors in this discussion) and the “detractors” (by which I assume you mean customers and/or reviewers) are anonymous to all of us, regardless of which group we’re in. Making the customers/reviewers use their real name is only outing one of the groups. Many in both groups voluntarily use their real names. Amazon, if compelled to do so for some legal reason, could provide the real names of all the customers. That isn’t true of authors who use pen names and are published other than through KDP and Createspace.

    I understand your argument about real world damage. Possibly someone using their real name would be less inclined to do some things without the cloak of anonymity (kind of like some erotica authors would be less inclined if their mom, dad, or Pastor might see their real name on a book cover). I realize this is a bad comparison, one of them is okay and the other shouldn’t be. But I’ve had run-ins with a few authors, most, if not all, who thought I fit in the “not okay” category, although I assure you they were wrong. One of them lives just a few hours away from me. I’d rather not making it any easier for them to track me down in real life, outside of the confines of e-commerce and in the world of meat and bones.

    I know you had the disclaimer up front that you aren’t talking about the “odd 1 star review,” but the situation with Yelp is a rarity. If I had to guess it would be that when that case is finally resolved, it will come out whether or not that was a coordinated campaign against that business or not. I’m inclined to think it was, but much more common in my observation are situations that appear the same, but aren’t coordinated at all.

    The real problem here, IMO, is whatever problem exists (and I don’t deny there is one) is something that should be solved by Amazon and the other e-commerce vendors *if* there is a solution. I don’t think the solution is removing the option of a certain amount of anonymity. (If it is, I expect to be informed of E.L. James real name.) That solution would be more likely to have negative repercussions that would impact every author or other producer trying to get reviews. I seriously doubt it is for authors to sue reviewers although I’m aware of at least one author who was making noises along those lines. Maybe there is a viable solution that wouldn’t create more problems than it solved, but I don’t think it has been proposed yet.

    1. You make some damn good points Al, and I actually believe most people who review a product simply want to express an opinion/experience about that product. For example, before buying any major household appliance, I always hop onto Epinions to see what other customers say about it. Their opinions/experiences don’t always influence whether I buy or not, but I do have a certain amount of faith that they are at least genuine.

      And therein lies the rub. The whole reviewing process is ultimately based on trust. If that trust is systematically abused, we all run the risk of making the whole process irrelevant.

      Because reviews are such a huge part of the Amazon machine, they have tried to regulate the process a little – that’s what the verified purchase is really all about, an attempt to validate the source of the review. It’s a good idea, but I would go further and require that all reviews posted on Amazon have to be purchased at Amazon. That, at least, would ensure that hate campaigners can’t review products they don’t even own. Or in the case of books – that they haven’t even read.

      As for your point re pseudonyms, to be honest that hadn’t even occurred to me as all the authors I know [and read] use their own names. Nonetheless, even those authors who use pseudonyms are bound by the rules of Amazon, so if a customer absolutely hates a book, they do have the option of getting a refund. So whether a reader knows exactly who an author is, they have the right of recourse.

      Finally, I can sort of understand that you would want to protect your privacy, but I see you as a professional, and I definitely don’t see you as the kind of person who would collude with others to run a hate campaign. So would it really be so terrible if your anonymity were broken? In a good cause? And by that I don’t mean authors, I mean the reviewing process itself.

    2. You make an interesting counter-argument, Al, but I disagree in one way. An author using a pen-name is not anonymous. ‘Alan Porter’ may or may not be the name I was born with, but it is real: it is my professional currency, my brand, and what I have to stand by and defend if necessary. I can’t change it. An anonymous poster (troll or otherwise) can change their identity at will as it has no ongoing value.
      Of course, this sheds no light on a solution to this dilemma: I just wanted to point out that EL James, Tom Cruise and Elton John are not hiding in the shadows of anonymity just by virtue of having professional names that differ from those they were born with. We can still be ‘found’ and called to account; a troll using a random stream of characters today and another one tomorrow can not.

      1. Well, some anon writers ARE anonymous. B. Traven, author of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” a classic example. Who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays?” another possible. There are three levels of anonymity and there are authors who operate at any given level.
        We wrote Mayan Calendar Girls and a couple of serials as “Team 2012” some of the writers made their names known, most did not.
        Anonymity is a two-edged sword. Just as a company can be attacked by faceless pests, anybody who complains about a law or service or attack can draw attack if not anonymous.
        It’s a delicate device and the main lesson is–know what you are going to do going into it and stick with it.
        The recent contratemps of J K Rowling’s anonymous novel being outed by an employee of a law firm indicates that. That’s the second level on anon: the public doesn’t know but your publisher and agent and “people” know. Which generally means everybody will eventually know.

        1. Let me ask you this, if you were walking down the street and saw a person coming towards you, their face hidden by a balaclava, or a Halloween mask, would you keep walking? Or would you take evasive action?

          I’m sure that as a guy, you’d probably feel honour-bound to keep walking. As a woman, though, I know I’d be ducking into the nearest shop or restaurant. Why? Because my freedom to live in a crowded city is predicated on a sense of trust that those around me aren’t out to get me.

          Someone wearing a mask would destroy that sense of trust in an instant – why cover your face if you have nothing to hide?

          Now I know full well the above example has as many holes as a swiss cheese, BUT it’s close to how I feel about anonymity in general. Yes, there may be times when anonymity is ok, but most of the time it signals danger.

          1. I’m sorry, but at first glance I thought you said the face was hidden by baklava. When I finally got the image of glistening pastry out of my head, you mentioned swiss cheese. Now I’m hungry. *sigh*

          2. lmao!!!!! Now you’ve got me thinking about baklava as well. 😉 I try not to indulge too much, but one slice is never enough….

          3. Anonymity is authorship doesn’t mean there is no name on the work… only that it’s not the “real” name of the author. If done right, you’re never even aware of that, and it’s hard to imagine a reason it would make a difference.
            On the other hand, there are stories that ARE actually published with “Anonymous” as the author credit. Some, like “Primary Colors” were best-sellers. And books by political insiders or CIA personnel illustrate one good reason to be nameless.
            This discussion might be of interest to you:
            Once you look at short stories, you start running into many, many anonymous classics that everybody reads.

          4. Fantastic link, thank you. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read any of those works, but like just about everyone, I know of ‘Go Ask Alice’ and ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’. I can also understand why the earlier works would be anonymous – nobody in their right mind would mess with the Spanish Inquisition. Monty Python aside, the era of the Spanish Inquisition was a time for staying quiet, and as invisible as possible, or risk torture and a very painful death.

            In the modern day, though, online anonymity has far less dire consequences. At worst, you may be ‘outed’ to your friends and family as someone with objectionable views, or nasty manners. Frauds, however, could face the prospect of litigation so I guess remaining anonymous would make sense, for them.

  7. Great post A.C. Freedom of speech is fine where you’re prepared to back up what you say. It’s an abuse rather than a freedom if you hide behind anonymity to cause damage to someone’s reputation.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    1. Thanks David. As Big Al pointed out, the problem is not as straight forward as I first thought but I do believe that freedom without responsibility is open to abuse.

  8. Very nice post, AC. People will be people, however, and one of the costs of freedom of speech is that a lot of not-very-clever people are free to say dumb things. The balance can only go too far in either direction: too restrictive or too liberal. As long as there are knuckleheads, there’ll be these problems, methinks.

    1. You’re right Chris, even knuckleheads have the right to express an opinion. 🙂 And I honestly don’t have a problem with that. My issue is with the organized, and sometimes fraudulent uses to which so called freedom of speech is put. We’re disgusted by sock puppets – not so much because they are self-serving S.O.B
      s but because it’s a form of cheating, and the ones being cheated are customers.

  9. I’m all for freedom of speech. but I would make it conditional on people being able to know the true identity of the speaker. If you haven’t the courage to stand up and give your opinion openly you have no credibility. It’s like the people one sees on TV wearing black balaclavas and spouting hate; they don’t deserve a hearing if we’re not allowed to know who they are. Why do they hide? Are they actually ashamed of their words, or is it fear of reprisal? It’s the same with anonymous negative posting.

    Freedom has to go in all directions and the social media companies should have mechanisms in place for removing any anonymised posing, particularly if it is detrimental to someone else’s interest or business.

  10. A number of years ago I entered an online writing contest. I’ll spare you the details and simply say it was like “American Idol” for novelists. People voted on your first chapter, then second, then third… ( until you were eliminated) and the idea is that the best novel would be left standing.

    I discovered that I was being targeted for “drive by” negative reviewing by some of the other authors. Their friends would post bad reviews just before the deadline to lower my scores as I was seen as a threat. The contest sponsors tried to counter this tactic by giving special weight to “expert reviewers” (editors and publishers) and this got me into the semi-finals of the contest. They also realized that some of the systematic “drive by” negative hits could be discovered by their algorithms and unearthed as not completely anonymous.

    I say not completely, but not easily identifiable either. The basic anonymity allowed people to be MEAN, RUDE and CRUEL while trying to rig the voting in favor of their friends. for me it was a lesson in the limits of “democracy” and confirmed my policy of using my name whenever I do anything. If I can’t say who I am, I shouldn’t be saying it.

    1. Your story made my hair stand on end. Isn’t life hard enough as a writer without this kind of base behaviour? The scariest thing to me, though, is the suspicion that most of these people just thought of it all as a game, or simply a logical tactic to ensure their friend won. If they could get away with it, why not use it. 🙁

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