Investigations: Anonymous Online Communities

Investigations: Anonymous Online Communities

Overview | Nikita

Anonymous online communities have long been commonplace on the internet and subject to controversy. 


Those who support these communities argue that anonymity is integral to the productivity and function of their communities. For one, anonymous communities remove the power-related influences that exist in regular conversations, allowing people of all backgrounds and stages of life to communicate on equal grounds. This factor can both empower societally marginalized voices and act as a check against powerful voices whose ideas alone lack credibility. Supporters also refer to the way anonymity allows people to discuss the validity of unconventional ideas –– regardless of social and career-related pressures. Accordingly, America has a long history of prominent figures publishing their work under pseudonyms, such as Alexander Hamilton with the Federalist papers. Others support using online pseudonyms solely for the sake of privacy. 


On the other hand, many are concerned with the disruption, and sometimes even extremism, associated with these online communities. Online trolls –– people who purposefully sow discord on the internet through offensive or inflammatory messages –– are the most widespread example of this, and have caused many prominent figures to voice their concern. For instance, Randi Zuckerberg, a former director of Facebook, has said that she thinks “anonymity on Facebook has got to go” entirely. In 2010, columnist Leonard Pitts went as far as to say that anonymous comment sections “have become havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness, factual inaccuracy and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.” Most grimly, anonymous communities have faced scrutiny over how they unite people with uncommon, hateful ideologies and allow them to radicalize further. For example, multiple mass shooters have been found to have frequented bigoted 8chan message boards, a website where the content is largely unrestricted, and where some even published manifestos before their killings. 


However, people that support online anonymity argue that it makes it easier for the authorities to locate potentially dangerous people, as they are more likely to voice their beliefs in this setting. 

Regardless of your views on this form of communication, anonymous online communities are mainstream on the internet and do not seem to be going away in the foreseeable future. 


Cupertino High School | Lawrence

Whether it is to acquire information, connect with like minded individuals, or just to pass time, many students in Cupertino High School have been actively involved in through sites such as reddit, discord and more. This should come as no surprise, with  However, communicating online strangers is not free of risks, as users expose themselves to potential trolls and cyberbullies


One way students access Anonymous Online Communities is through subreddits and discord servers, which can be easily found on the web. One can sign up as any username, and their identities are completely concealed. Omegle, a website that allows strangers to text or video chat does not even require users to register. Internet anonymity is also prevalent on social media platforms, where instagram accounts run by local high school individuals operate with obscurity.


Students report that the first extensive interaction often stems from multiplayer video games, connecting with players hundreds or thousands of miles away. Gaming simplifies the bonding aspect of virtual relationships, since all players share the same gaming hobby and goal of succeeding in said game.


A junior at CHS (we’ll call him #1) said, “So when I was in 4th grade i started playing Clash of Clans, and basically how it worked is that I joined a clan… I started talking to these guys in high school and I was 10 and we started talking about it for a solid year, and never communicated with them ever again.”


Certainly, the online gaming community is considerable and extraordinarily active. This is even more so the case during the Covid-19 shelter-in-place measures, as teenagers turn to the internet to substitute the lack of in-person company.


Another Junior (#2) said, “As of now I tend to spend more time on Online communities texting my friends and playing online games like Fortnite. I would go Online and play with my friends for at least 2-3 hours a day… but I’m trying to limit my time Online with schoolwork and college applications coming around.”


The scope of anonymous virtual communities are not limited to video games. Discord servers and subreddits, which focus on a unique subject, are particularly popular among like-minded individuals. Subjects include Cryptocurrency, Anime, and Fortnie, and channels give users the opportunity to engage in both public chat rooms and private messages with complete strangers.


Zoom | Juliet

Since the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent introduction of distance learning, Cupertino High School has been contending with the challenges that online anonymity can provide to schooling.


One of the most common forms of distance learning, that many teachers have adopted, is through Zoom, a video conferencing service that offers free meeting options and scaling paid plans. Zoom has many advantages that make it a viable solution for distance learning; for example, it allows up to one hundred session participants at their free tier, unlike comparable programs like Facebook video chats.


In an educational setting, Zoom also does not institute a time limit on their meetings. Although generally free conferences larger than one-on-one have a forty-minute time cap, given the extenuating circumstances of the global pandemic, this cap was dropped for primary and secondary education. 


The options that Zoom provides—screen sharing, video and auditory teleconferencing, and breakout rooms—make it an invaluable tool for adapting traditional teaching styles to an online environment. Although not a perfect solution, its widespread adoption indicates it fulfills both teachers’ and students’ educational needs.


However, Zoom also provides a high degree of anonymity. Making an account on Zoom does not require payment, which could connect an account to a single real person, nor anything other than an email. Therefore, troll or spam accounts can easily be made with impunity. However, to account for the relative ease of making dummy accounts, Zoom concentrates security to protect meetings themselves.


All Zoom sessions can be encrypted with Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption, a form of encryption that secures communication between a web browser and a server. What this means practically for Zoom meetings is that communication is encrypted between each computer and the Zoom server. Nevertheless, Zoom’s company servers receive the encrypted data they transmit to the other meeting participants while also possessing the key to decrypt it.


Although Zoom’s usage of SSL encryption has raised concerns about their access to raw data and footage from private meetings, the company firmly maintains that they do not decrypt, sell or profit off of users’ data. Nonetheless, they could be compelled by subpoena to hand over meeting data.


Every effort to encrypt a Zoom meeting is also worthless if an outside party gains access to the link to join a Zoom meeting. This is the security breach seen most often in Zoombombing, wherein a malicious individual or group gains access to a Zoom meeting and disrupts it by saying or showing obscene or offensive content. Although the meeting link is usually obtained via social media platforms like Twitter and Discord, or is already publicly available, there have been reports of students sharing classroom meeting links with the intent of getting Zoombombed.