Anonymity has been one of the hallmarks of social media as many people like to hide their identities on online platforms. However, new research shows that you are not as anonymous on social media as you think.
The research was conducted on the website Economics Job Market Rumors which is popularly known by its acronym EJMR and is infamous for its toxic content. EJMR is quite popular though and had 2.5 million monthly visits in 2022 according to SimilarWeb data.
The research was published by Florian Ederer, a management professor at Boston University, Kyle Jensen, an associate dean at Yale, and Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham, a finance professor at the Yale School of Management.
Looking forward to Florian’s presentation this Thursday about an important topic: toxic speech in economics.
There has been a lot of speculation about how we geolocated millions of EJMR posts.
The truth is rather mundane—it's just public data and some math. pic.twitter.com/oxwLL7as1f
— Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham (@paulgp) July 18, 2023
The researchers focused on two questions: what do economists say when they are anonymous and how widespread is toxic speech among them?
They found that almost all the content on the website was created by anonymous accounts who receive a four-character username when posting on EJMR. For their research, the team recovered 47,630 distinct IP addresses of EJMR users and attributed them to 66.1% of the nearly 7 million posts spread over the past 12 years.
Subsequently, they geolocated posts across geographies, institutions, and contributors.
Going by the toxic content on the website, many believed that the posters were not top economists but online trolls. However, the research has shown that much of the toxic content was posted by individuals at top-notch institutions like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, NYU, and the University of Chicago.
Research Shows Economists Used Toxic Words Online
The research showed some troubling results including the widespread use of the “N” word by economists. One user even described Black Americans as the “biggest enemies” of the country.
The researchers traced racial slurs against Asian communities to IP addresses at Yale, Stanford, Harvard, and Chicago. Sexism and misogyny were also quite prevalent among economists.
One of the posts for instance said, “Things were WAY better when women were focused on rearing children and feeding their husbands.” One other linked hiring women candidates to their body parts.
The paper concluded, “Our analysis reveals that the users who post on EJMR are predominantly economists, including those working in the upper echelons of academia, government, and the private sector.”
At an online presentation last week, Ederer stressed that it’s “not just a few bad apples” but instead “It’s very, very widespread. And the toxicity is widespread.”
The Toxicity is Quite Widespread on Social Media
The research incidentally showed that 13% of the posts from universities were toxic – which is no small number by any standards – especially as it is coming from highly educated people.
Notably, the percentage of Ph.D. among Black Americans is anyways below their share of the US population and they are more likely to opt for a doctorate in mathematics and other social sciences rather than economics.
According to Goldsmith-Pinkham, “The idea that in an anonymous space, people behave in this way, it reflects pretty poorly on the profession (economists).”
Meanwhile, the researchers have tried to allay fears and emphasized that the individual identities of those posting toxic content would not be released. While that might bring relief to the economists who posted the toxic content, it has yet again bought the question of online anonymity to the forefront.
Are you Really Anonymous on Social Media?
The researchers only used publicly available data and were able to trace the identities of multiple posters on EJMR. This goes to signal that merely masking your name and using a pseudo id does not make one totally anonymous on social media.
It has also ignited the debate about anonymity on social media. While one section believes that anonymity helps protect the identity – especially for vulnerable sections – others believe it only leads to trolling and toxicity on social media platforms.
Notably, there is widespread trolling and hateful content on social media platforms like Twitter. Reports suggest that hate content on Twitter has increased since Elon Musk acquired the platform in October 2022.
Coming back to the research on EJMR, the hateful content on the platform has been known for years, and in 2017, Alice Wu, an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley published a paper highlighting sexist content on the website.
Anya Samek, an economics professor who was among those who were targeted on EJMR as far back as 2009, believes that the site is not accountable which leads to the propagation of toxic content on the platform.
After the research paper was posted online, Samek said “I would like to see universities take some action to make sure there’s no hate speech online coming from their own offices.”
It meanwhile remains to be seen whether the top universities where these economists have been identified take any action to control the prevalence of hate and toxicity among them, or whether EJMR continues to remain a platform infested with toxicity.
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