The iconic New Yorker cartoon from 1993 says “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” This popular meme speaks to the anonymity of the Internet, something that is prized and protected by many – but that anonymity is also the driving force behind bullying, incivility and online harassment. A video that has gone viral drives home that point. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, the two minute video shows men reading insulting and degrading Twitter messages that were sent to popular female sportswriters. The men in the video are clearly shocked as they begin to read the Tweets aloud – harsh words that people would rarely say in public. The video’s lesson is that people will say anything when they are empowered to do so behind a cloak of anonymity.

With that freedom from consequence comes the potential for fraud. Wikipedia for example, written largely by anonymous contributors, has been subject to criticism over the years. One of the most egregious examples was the Essjay controversy, where one of Wikipedia’s most prolific contributors claimed to be a religious scholar with multiple degrees. When this claim turned out to be completely false, Essjay, and even Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, justified the subterfuge, with Essjay claiming to have used “misinformation” to protect himself. Eventually public sentiment turned against Essjay, who resigned his position.

The tendency towards incivility, ad hominem attacks and outright rage in online discourse has caused many well respected publications to either disallow anonymous comments, or shut off comment threads entirely. Popular Science banished comments in 2013, arguing that Internet comments, especially anonymous ones, undermine the integrity of science and hinder meaningful discussion, noting that “Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”

There is little doubt that anonymity breeds incivility and unwarranted maliciousness against both individuals and commercial businesses. The New Yorker reported on the psychology of online comments, citing a University of Houston study that looked at 900 random user comments on articles about immigration, half from newspapers that allowed anonymous posts, and half from ones that didn’t. “Anonymity made a perceptible difference,” said the article’s authors. “A full fifty-three per cent of anonymous commenters were uncivil, as opposed to twenty-nine per cent of registered, non-anonymous commenters.”

Online Review Portals, Anonymity and Fraud

“The consequence of this uncontrolled online rage is more than just hurt feelings, in the case of commercial businesses, it could mean someone’s livelihood,” said Jeev Trika, CEO of online review portal If you’re Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and you’re feeding meat pies made of humans to your unsuspecting customers, you probably deserve all the Internet ire and rage you get, but for most, it’s more of a grey area, and reviewers must bear some responsibility for the mob mentality that might destroy a small business whose only crime was serving up a slightly stale ham and cheese sandwich.

“Consumers – especially in the younger demographics – rely much more on online peer reviews than traditional advertising to make their decisions,” said Trika. Nielsen’s Truth in Advertising report notes that 84 percent of respondents to their survey rank “friends and family” recommendations as most influential, and 68 percent trust consumer opinions that have been posted online. But many of the online review portals that consumers rely on are plagued by anonymous negativity and a mob mentality, sometimes instigated by a business’ competitors rather than a legitimate consumer. By the same token, scores of positive but thin reviews – in a practice known as “astroturfing” – are often bought and paid for by the companies themselves.

While some review portals are already starting to give more weight to reviews from users who verify their identities, the German courts are setting the tone for International law by mandating it. According to the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, the Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Court of Justice) now says that review portals are obligated to verify the accuracy of reviews on request. Several legal cases dealing with online ratings services in Germany revolve around the Stoererhaftung Doctrine, in which the court must balance the provider’s freedom of speech with the affected person’s rights on a case by case basis. Stanford notes in its blog that “Operation of a review portal carries an increased risk of defamation compared to other portals,” and “This risk is enhanced by the ability to add reviews on an anonymous or pseudonymous basis.”

Reviews that are negative but nonetheless deserving are part of doing business. Entrepreneur and Internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk says about online reviews, “We don’t get the credit for the good, but we get dismantled for the bad. Harsh truth.” Vaynerchuk suggests that the only way to overcome the problem of malicious reviews is to “Kill ‘em with kindness,” saying in his blog, “The optics of you jumping in and talking to people is actually more powerful to the rest of the world. You show the depth you have in caring about a customer, and that outweighs the negative reviews.”