Anonymous chat apps fuels both free speech and cyberbullying

Anonymous chat apps fuels both free speech and cyberbullying

When the anonymous social media app YOLO was launched in May 2019, it topped the iTunes downloads chart after just one week, despite the lack of a major marketing campaign. Designed to be used with social network Snapchat, YOLO lets users invite people to send them anonymous messages. Its viral popularity followed that of other apps, such as the now infamously defunct Yik Yak as well as Whisper, Secret, Spout, Swiflie, and Sarahah. All these cater to a desire for anonymous interaction online.

The explosive popularity of YOLO has led to warnings of the same problem that led to Yik Yak’s shutdown, namely that its anonymity could lead to cyberbullying and hate speech.

But in an age of online surveillance and self-censorship, proponents view anonymity as an essential component of privacy and free-speech. And our own research on anonymous online interactions among teenagers in the UK and Ireland has revealed a wider range of interactions that extend beyond the toxic to the benign and even beneficial.

The problem with anonymous apps is the torrent of reports of cyberbullying, harassment, and threats that appear to be even more of a feature than in regular social networks. Psychologist John Suler, who specializes in online behavior, describes this phenomenon as the “online disinhibition effect”. This means people feel less accountable for their actions when they feel removed from their real identities.

The veil provided by anonymity enables people to become rude, critical, angry, hateful, and threatening towards one another, without fear of repercussion. But this opportunity for uninhibited expression is also what makes anonymous apps both attractive to and beneficial for people who want to use them in a positive way.

Freedom from social media’s tyranny

Recent studies highlight that young people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the narcissistic culture that dominates networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Due to the nature of their design, these platforms encourage people to present idealized versions of themselves. Not only is this emotionally taxing, but deploying the camera filters and other image augmentation tools involved in these idealized presentations means this process can involve a significant workload.

Young people increasingly feel that social media can lead to anxiety and feelings of inadequacy that they take from constantly comparing themselves to unrealistic images of other people. In light of these pressures, it’s less surprising that young people are increasingly turning to various forms of anonymous interaction that free them from the need to present a perfect avatar.