Blog: Ask Professor Nick

Inaccuracy of Anonymous Gossip Sites

[From an excellent former student of mine]

Greetings, Professor–

I hope this note finds you well. Congratulations (a little in advance) on your new book–it’s quite the testament to the significant body of knowledge you’ve acquired via your research. While reading RIT’s news, I happened across an article about your blog at profnick.com and thought I’d send you an article you may find of interest.

The piece discusses JuicyCampus, a website where students post anonymous comments about their schoolmates (link to Businessweek article). One view is that posters’ comments are slanderous and inappropriate (from both decency and legal perspectives); the other is that posters are simply exercising their free speech. I’m interested in your take on the rumor aspect of it: Do you believe the site’s anonymity encourages students to post true statements or false ones? Could rumors posted on the site serve as a way for students to ‘get back’ at classmates?

Best,

[former student]

Hi [former student],

Thanks for the congratulations, and the question–it was an interesting one.

My takes: First, anonymity in this context will tend to reduce accuracy. The general principle is that when people are in not held accountable for what they say, they will have less regard for the truth. Other motives–malicious glee, entertainment, self-enhancement, acheivement of strategic goals–are then less constrained by the facts. Conversely, those whose words are examined closely will be more careful about what they convey. Journalists, for example, are better at getting the story straight than bloggers; the difference is that journalists are held to a high standard by their editors. I wouldn’t bet money on anything that juicycampus produces.

Second, I do think the site provides an opportunity for students to maliciously harm other students (as well as satisfy a number of other base motives). In my research group, we have come to call this a “malicious glee” motive. In unpublished research I did with Prashant Bordia, this motive predicted the whether or not a particpant was likely to spread a negative rumor about a boss. When motivated to harm the boss (we asked them to imagine that he had treated them unfairly), they were much more likely to spread the rumor than when not so motivated.

We are accustomed to the right to face our accusers directly (see the 6th Amendment to the US Constitution). One reason behind this idea is that it encourages a fair and open debate; the jury is better able to determine not only if the accusation is true, but what the motives are in bringing the accusation. A good system overall. Of course, that’s the difficulty with anonymous Internet gossip like this: the accuser’s identity is kept secret. Ergo, a fair and open debate about the accused alleged deeds is less likely. The site is not designed for ferreting out the facts.

Best regards,

–ProfNick

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