The last decade has seen the rapid growth of conversation on how social media has fueled political polarization. Both popular media and academics have identified ways in which internet platforms facilitate citizens’ exposure to extreme views, contributing to increasing partisanship in the United States. A recent series of studies, however, questions that causal narrative. In 2017, researchers from Stanford and Brown University analyzed survey data collected through the American National Election Study from 1996 to 2012, finding that “the increase in polarization is largest among the groups least likely to use the internet and social media.”
The rise of polarization has been of academic and personal interest to me. Ever since I remember, I thought it important to figure out ways to facilitate conversation between disconnected people. At home, I am most often the mediator. Naturally, rising political polarization globally concerned me. The summer of 2020 emphasized this as the world was tossed into a unique political moment. A space sitting at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic, a presidential race, and a surge in racial justice activism following the murder of George Floyd. As national politics grew increasingly complex, so did political conversations in the Stanford bubble. This summer, referred to by NBC as the “summer of activism,” saw Stanford Missed Connections (SMC) transform into a platform for political debate. Discourse on the platform was frequently instigated by a specific set of anonymous users expressing right-leaning views. As I experienced first-hand the tensions and stresses of engaging with such users across political lines, I wanted to examine their behavior. I was curious to see what it could reveal about internet anonymity and its relationship to polarization.
Stanford Missed Connections is an online platform originally intended to allow Stanford students to anonymously share their “secret crushes” in the form of “missed connections.” Students make submissions to the owner, who posts them anonymously. Each post has a comments section where Instagram users can interact and engage. SMC in its original form is the place you let the cute person from your SLE section know you found their interpretation of Aristotle invigorating or announce to the world that the girl in the yellow t-shirt at Arrillaga this morning might be the love of your life. It’s the place relationships start (and often end), and has been home to scores of Class of ‘24 freshmen entering the Stanford bubble virtually for the first time in search of community and connection.
Over the Spring and Summer of 2020, SMC evolved into an additional, unexpected role as a space for political discussion and debate. This shift was accompanied by the emergence of anonymous Instagram accounts, colloquially called “burner” accounts, that engaged with Stanford students on controversial sociopolitical issues. In the fall of 2020, I conducted research on the patterns of motivation and behavior of burner accounts. In the process, I came upon surprising insight on the relationship between the internet anonymity and polarization.
(In the above images, the comments highlighted in blue were shared by burner accounts.)
Going into my research, I expected that burner accounts would be overwhelmingly more inflammatory — understood as tending or intending to incite strong, often hostile emotional responses — than their non-burner counterparts. This hypothesis was challenged as I came across several instances of burner accounts making the effort to explain the nuances of their views while engaging with those that disagreed, rather than making purposefully provocative arguments. I also found instances of non-burner accounts making statements that could be perceived as incendiary. It took a lot of poring over evidence to set aside the biases that I came in with and conclude that burner accounts were not as distinctive as I expected in the style of their comments. What set them apart was their content. As we see in the above screenshots, which are themselves only a handful out of a haystack, burner accounts consistently expressed views associated with right-wing politics in the United States. In my research, I only came across one burner account that did not subscribe to this partisan pattern.
It was interesting to observe that both anonymous and non-burner users were acutely aware of this political divide. Non-burner accounts often explicitly conflated burner accounts with the right, with one user referring to them as ‘mini Ben Shapiros’ while burner accounts would refer to those they disagreed with using terms like ‘SJW’ (Social Justice Warrior), a term typically used in a derogatory sense against those on the left.
In the left-leaning political environment at Stanford, these right-leaning burner accounts demonstrated a sharp deviation from the norm. Consistently, research has found that online forums tend towards ‘echo chambers’ with one widely-cited study claiming that “to date, there is no comprehensive empirical evidence on the potential of online groups to engage participants in discussions across lines of ideological difference.” SMC clearly provides a counter-example to this observation, hosting conflicting opinions in close proximity. Whether or not one believes that the discourse on SMC is capable of meaningfully shifting the political positions of those that engage, I found it worthwhile to examine how such starkly contrasting views came to coexist on an anonymous crush-sharing platform. First, I had to understand the relationship between the burner accounts’ anonymity and the right-leaning nature of their views.
My research suggested that this relationship existed not because anonymity drives polarization, as some academic research suggests, but because those in polarized contexts with less common views only spoke up under the protection of anonymity. This conclusion was drawn from my observation of two key fears that appeared to drive users to seek anonymity through burner accounts.
First, several users seemed to seek anonymity out of a fear of judgement by the left-leaning majority at Stanford.
Burner accounts explicitly state that they engage anonymously out of a fear of being attacked or judged for their political beliefs, possibly in a way that impacts their social relationships. It is evident that this fear is at least partly founded in reality, as evidenced below:
The above took place at a time when SMC was flooded with discussion around the privilege Stanford athletes hold. Multiple statements in the comments section received over 15 likes, each comment explicitly assessing the merit of the individual behind the post and not that of the opinion that it expressed. These instances suggest that a substantial factor driving right-leaning users to use anonymous burner accounts is the fear of facing personal and social consequences for their political views.
Second, burner accounts also seem to seek anonymity out of a fear that their opinion may be challenged based on their offline identities. One comment read, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told my opinion doesn’t matter or is irrelevant because of my background. I can see the advantages and disadvantages I’ve been dealt by life, but they’re largely irrelevant […] I feel like it’s a [expletive] contest to see who has the ‘least privilege’ to see who’s opinion will be valued most.”6 Anonymity may not actually give right-leaning views more credit. Many non-burner users have expressed their distaste for burner accounts, explicitly dismissing views because those expressing them refuse to reveal their real identities. However, a perception of the potential invalidation of one’s opinion is certainly seen above.
The two fears identified likely inhibit those with less common views from engaging freely across internet-based contexts. My observational research cannot gauge whether individuals’ opinions were actually modified through bipartisan SMC discourse. In this sense, it is not clear that the platform definitively combats depolarization. However, the analysis presented above does show that anonymity in the form of burner accounts allowed for the emergence of a rare digital space: a space where those with different political opinions engaged.
Whether or not one agrees with the uncommon opinions that were platformed through burner accounts, the coexistence of users with different views in digital spaces is a necessary first step in the path to depolarization. The above analysis suggests that anonymity may be capable of breaking echo chambers on digital platforms beyond SMC. It is worth noting here that the anonymity-seeking behavior of burner account users is itself an adaptation in response to polarization, which is responsible for intensifying the fears described. In the SMC case study, anonymity likely emerged initially as a symptom and not a solution to the problem of polarization. My study does indicate, however, that the option to conceal one’s identity may ultimately bring into conversation a larger number of users holding fringe opinions by removing potential ‘barriers to entry.’ This first step of creating online spaces that tend away from homogeneity could create scope for engagement across political lines, opening a potential path to depolarization.
A simple way of implementing this at the collegiate level is the creation of anonymized discussion forums supplementing politically oriented courses. Such forums, if created and used with the right intentionality, could facilitate dialogue that would otherwise not take place in live classes or on non-anonymized forums. Members of the Stanford community have already begun to offer courses aimed at depolarization. Last year, ETHICSOC 24SI: Deliberative Discussions, a course launched through an initiative of the ASSU, offered “the opportunity for students of different backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences to meet regularly over weekly dinners and share in a process of mutual exchange.” The analysis presented here prompts me to wonder if such conversations and spaces might be enhanced by the safe, controlled, and intentional introduction of anonymity. What are the conversations we are able to have when we do not feel judged? What are the positions we become willing to reconsider when our fears are undone?