Backgrounder: How Can Online Anonymity Affect Hate?

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Online anonymity is widely debated for its role in fomenting hate, mis- and disinformation, and toxicity. Critics contend if it was abolished, users would be less likely to post incendiary content and commit crimes, while supporters say it is essential to protect marginalized people and political activists. With online hate and harassment remaining high, would abolishing online anonymity be a viable solution?

ADL’s Center for Technology & Society looks at the benefits and harms of online anonymity, major court cases weighing in on the practice, and countries worldwide that have grappled with similarly thorny questions around free speech and curbing abuse.

What is online anonymity?

Online anonymity–avoiding public identification when using internet services–has been a critical aspect of communicating and interacting with others online since the early bulletin boards of the 1980s. The ability to post anonymously on the internet has protected whistleblowers holding powerful institutions accountable, political dissidents fighting for greater freedoms, and targets seeking safety from their abusers and harassers. 

Online anonymity is best understood not as a real versus fake binary but a continuum. Different online services afford their users varying degrees of anonymity: 

  • At one pole are sites that mandate the use of “authentic” names that users are called by in everyday life. Google introduced a real-name policy in 2011, but scrapped it in 2014 after widespread criticism. Quora, a popular online knowledge market, also reversed its real-name policy in 2021. As of 2023, Facebook is the only major social media platform that restricts anonymity to this extent.1
  • Most sites (e.g., Reddit, Twitter, YouTube) are somewhere in the middle, where users have pseudonymous handles that cannot be easily associated with their offline identities. 
  • At the other pole are sites like 4chan and mobile apps like Yik Yak where users can post anonymously with no handles required.

There are technical limits to total anonymity, at least on publicly accessible internet (sometimes called the “clearnet” in contrast to the dark web, where such anonymity is possible). Most websites, including 4chan, track and record users’ internet protocol (IP) addresses, which can be traced back to specific individuals as long as they are not using a virtual private network (VPN).2 But in terms of how users’ identities appear to others, online anonymity for any given service falls somewhere along this continuum.

To further complicate matters, internet users only sometimes have one-to-one relationships to online accounts. Multiple individuals can operate a single account, or a user can operate several accounts on the same service. In other words, even in cases where the service’s terms of use limit a user’s anonymity, their online identity may not be closely tied to their offline identity.

Why is online anonymity controversial?

Anonymity plays a role in enabling online hate, harassment, and misinformation. Concerns about the role of online anonymity in crime, dis- and misinformation, and toxic behavior from insults to cyberharassment are common—and not without good reason. For example, the Russia-based Internet Research Agency attempted to manipulate public opinion during the 2016 U.S. elections by creating fake social media accounts and groups to comment on divisive social issues like race and immigration. Anonymous “troll storms” are methods for harassment and intimidation that are difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute. 

Incidents like those above have led some to advocate for restrictions on anonymity to improve safety online and reduce toxicity. For example, Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, announced in 2021 a plan to introduce legislation requiring social media users to verify their legal identities in the hopes that it would reduce online toxicity (critics argued that this may have been unconstitutional, and Kennedy has yet to introduce the bill). Before finalizing his acquisition of Twitter in 2022, Elon Musk floated a proposal to “authenticate all real humans” on the platform to combat automated and inauthentic accounts. So far Musk’s idea has not come to fruition, but it indicates his openness to rolling back protections for anonymity on Twitter. 

Doing away with online anonymity will not solve the problem of hate, harassment, and disinformation. Research has shown that forcing people to post online under their “real” names has little meaningful impact on mitigating toxicity and harassment; after all, many users have no problem posting hateful messages or engaging in harassment under their real names

Moreover, anonymity is the key to safety for many internet users, and is worth protecting. 

But anonymity does have the potential to cause harm, making it possible for extremists and harassers to terrorize targets—typically marginalized individuals and communities—with impunity, and for criminals to avoid justice. In cases of clear threats to safety, reasonable measures can and should be taken to unmask offenders.

How does online anonymity enable harassment and criminality?

At the most basic level, anonymity shields individuals from having their offline identities connected to their online activities. For those who wish to cause harm to others or to commit crimes, anonymity can be a very powerful tool. While courts have ruled in favor of protecting online anonymity in most cases, some examples when they have authorized unmasking include:

  • Tumblr and nonconsensual sexual images (2017): In December 2016, a video clip of a woman having sex with her ex-boyfriend was uploaded to Tumblr without her consent and shared over 1,200 times. The post included her name and a link to her Facebook account, where she began receiving sexually explicit messages from strangers. A New York state court ordered Tumblr to release identifying information about the 281 users who had shared the video, allowing the woman to take legal action against them. The ruling drew criticism from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties group focused on digital and online technology issues, for potential First Amendment violations. Yet it also demonstrated the willingness of courts and social media platforms to restrict users’ rights to remain anonymous if their online activity has caused egregious harm. 
  • Playpen and child sexual abuse material (2015): Following a months-long investigation, the FBI successfully unmasked users of Playpen, an online forum that hosted child sexual abuse material and was accessed via onion routing.3 After a foreign law enforcement agency alerted the FBI about an IP address it suspected was operating Playpen, the FBI tracked down Playpen’s web host and took control of it. A federal magistrate then granted the FBI a warrant to deploy a piece of malware that caused the Playpen server to collect real IP addresses from the site’s visitors. The FBI collected enough information to arrest at least 350 people in the United States who were connected to Playpen. Although the EFF and other lawyers raised concerns that the FBI’s investigative technique was unconstitutional and could have serious consequences for individual freedoms, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled the evidence obtained in the investigation admissible because the FBI had acted in good faith. The heinous nature of the crimes no doubt played into the Court’s decision.
  • AutoAdmit and Yale Law (2007): An individual posting under the pseudonymous handle “AK47” made repeated threats of sexual assault and defamatory claims against three Yale Law students on AutoAdmit, an online message board for prospective and current law students and lawyers. One of the students was denied job interviews after her prospective employers did a Google search for her name and found the AutoAdmit posts about her. The targets subpoenaed AutoAdmit for AK47’s identifying information, and a federal district court judge ruled they could pursue unmasking his IP address because their interest in pursuing a libel case against AK47 outweighed his right to post anonymously.

How does online anonymity protect people?

Requiring that everyone use their actual names when participating online can put some users in greater danger. Facebook’s “real-name” policy is an outlier in social media concerning restrictions on anonymity. In fact, Facebook’s enforcement of its policy has harmed marginalized individuals and groups, including:

  • LGBTQ+ communities: For transgender users and drag performers, Facebook’s name policy effectively outs them. Moreover, since the policy is primarily enforced when a user’s account is reported and Facebook reviews it, it has become a tool for targeted harassment both on the platform and off. LGBTQ+ users are often targeted for violent harassment offline, which is made easier by exposing their legal names. LGBTQ+ individuals who cannot be open about their sexuality or gender identity offline can also find and build online support networks, using pseudonyms or participating anonymously to protect themselves.
  • Survivors and targets of sexual violence: Survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, as well as targets of stalking, have clear and urgent needs to maintain their anonymity online. For example, abusers can easily use a photo posted to Facebook in which targets are tagged to figure out where they live. Survivors also rely on anonymous and pseudonymous online spaces to find support and camaraderie. People who have been exposed to their abusers due to Facebook’s name policy face a painful dilemma: stay on the platform and risk future harassment or violence, or delete their accounts and lose their primary means of contact with family and friends. 
  • Indigenous/Native Americans: Real-name policies like Facebook’s are built upon culturally-specific naming practices that exclude different traditions and communities. For example, some indigenous and Native American groups use names that combine English adjectives and nouns, which outsiders sometimes report as “fake” names on Facebook. Such was the case for Dana Lone Hill. Facebook suspended her account in 2015 after she changed her surname from her mother’s to her father’s and other users flagged her account for violating the name policy.
  • Political dissidents: While Facebook received international plaudits as a tool for pro-democracy protesters during the 2011 Arab Spring, its limits on anonymity have undermined dissidents elsewhere. For instance, Cambodia’s authoritarian prime minister weaponized Facebook’s names policy to crush dissent by ordering the country’s security forces to arrest citizens who post critical comments about him and his administration. In another case, a man operating Facebook groups for gay people in Ethiopia—where homosexuality is illegal—had his account suspended in 2015 for using a pseudonym. 

Where have restrictions on online anonymity been proposed? 

Governments around the world have passed—and rescinded—laws restricting the rights of internet users to be anonymous or pseudonymous online. Proposals are typically framed as a way to protect the public from threats, harassment, and low-quality information.4 More often than not, however, the effects of such laws are to strengthen governments’ surveillance capabilities and limit criticism from citizens.

Some recent, high-profile examples of laws and proposals restricting online anonymity include:

  • United Kingdom (2021): Some British politicians called for including an end to online anonymity in the Online Safety Bill, arguing that unrestricted anonymity had contributed to greater toxicity in public discourse and increased threats to public figures’ safety. Then-Home Secretary Priti Patel considered the proposal, but it faced heavy criticism and was not incorporated into the bill’s draft. Rather, social media platforms would be required to allow users to block others who have not verified their identities. As of April 2023, Parliament has not yet passed the bill.
  • Russia (2014): President Vladimir Putin signed a law requiring all bloggers with more than 3,000 readers—including on social media sites—to register with the federal agency in charge of mass media and to publish under their real names. Previously, only news media outlets had been subject to this type of registration. The law also holds bloggers accountable for any misinformation on their site, including in comments left by readers. 
  • China (2012): President Xi Jinping’s administration implemented its Cybersecurity Law, which, among other provisions, requires internet users to use their real names when registering with online forums and message boards, posting comments to news and social media sites, and participating in online chat groups. Users can use pseudonyms or remain anonymous when choosing screen names, but their offline identities must be logged with the Ministry of Public Security. Real-name registration data are aggregated for use in China’s controversial social credit system where citizens’ behavior and trustworthiness are scored and can factor into denial of services, such as purchasing a train ticket.
  • South Korea (2008): The National Assembly passed a law requiring all internet users posting information on websites with over 100,000 daily visitors to do so under their real names. The law was a reaction to the rising influence that citizen journalism sites like and so-called “netizen” culture had on Korean politics and society in the 2000s and intense public opposition to then-President Lee Myung-bak signing a free trade agreement with the U.S. that the Lee administration blamed on anonymous posters and false information on online discussion boards. Critics pointed out that the law curtailed freedom of expression, especially the right of citizens to speak out against their government. An analysis conducted by the agency in charge of enforcing the law found that it was ineffective at reducing malicious comments, and Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional in 2012.

Anonymity within reason

Online anonymity is a powerful and important right for internet users. It helps protect speech, expression, and safety for millions worldwide. While many believe that online anonymity emboldens people to be more hateful and engage in more harassment, research has shown little evidence to support such claims. There are, however, compelling examples of how anonymity makes it harder to hold hateful extremists, harassers, and criminals accountable for the harm that they cause. Online anonymity cannot be treated as an “all or nothing” feature of the internet; just as there are different degrees to which online services afford anonymity, there are also cases in which anonymity impedes freedom, security, and justice. Because anonymity can be a barrier to justice, platforms must, at a minimum, be able to identify those using their services anonymously should that be necessary to prevent or address harm. Lawmakers must also strike an appropriate, well-reasoned balance between protecting individuals’ rights to privacy and security and ensuring anonymity cannot be exploited toward nefarious ends.


  1. Facebook tweaked its policy slightly in 2015 to allow users in “special circumstances” to justify why their profile names differ from their legal names.
  2. VPNs make it more difficult for internet service providers to identify individuals, but they do not prevent other kinds of tracking that can be used for identification. See: 
  3. Onion routing is a method for communicating anonymously on the internet by sending encrypted data through a series of intermediary computers (i.e., proxy nodes), like layers of an onion. By relying on multiple intermediaries and layers of encryption, it is exceedingly difficult to identify the IP address of an end user sending or receiving data. Onion services are only accessible using a special internet browser that can route traffic to websites on the so-called “dark web.”
  4. The Poynter Institute keeps an updated record of global actions to tackle online misinformation, many of which are justifications for increased government censorship and repression. Not every action directly affects online anonymity, but there is some overlap.