Since the United States Capitol attack one year ago, I still find myself repeatedly asking "what the (stars) happened?"
Watching the events of that fateful January 6th day unfold felt surreal. I've visited the U.S. Capitol multiple times and have vivid memories of the peaceful and functioning democratic institution. I never would have expected it to be attacked by American citizens.
After more time to reflect, better questions emerged:
What causes thousands of people within a shared set of beliefs to commit violent actions?
Why do online discussions and threats turn into real world damage?
One year later, I feel like I'm starting to understand the causes and underlying trends that led to this and other events, both before and after January 6th, 2021.
An unlikely combination of anecdotes help explain what's happening:
John Suler's scholarly article about the Online Disinhibition Effect. To the extent an academic paper can explain a set of real world events, this is it.
Cullen Hoback's documentary, Q: Into the Storm, an HBO mini-series about the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Steven Spielberg's rendition of Ready Player One, a science fiction movie based on the book by Ernest Cline.
John Suler published his article about the Online Disinhibition Effect in 2004, just as the popularity of social networks was beginning to rise. This research is more relevant than ever today.
It's particularly relevant when applied to specific examples — for this article, the ones noted above. In these three examples, there are clear cases where disinhibition reached a high level and carried over from the internet into the real world.
Suler's research describes the specific factors that cause online disinhibition and result in people carrying out acts online that they may not have in the real world. Ultimately, the cause comes down to a disconnect between our online and offline behavior. The behavior can cross over in increasingly harmful ways as the lines between the real world and the metaverse get blurred.
Studying the Online Disinhibition Effect also helps us understand how its factors could lead to similar events in the future. Technology's impact on socio-political matters is here to stay. It's better to treat events like the U.S. Capitol attacks as a pattern of behavior that's capable of reoccurring in different forms, not as an extraordinary one-off event.
Defining Inhibitions and Disinhibitions
First, a quick explainer on the meaning of inhibitions and disinhibitions. They're certainly not words I use every day, but the meaning of the words is critically important to understanding the effects they cause.
In psychology terms, an inhibition is "a voluntary or involuntary restraint on the direct expression of an instinct." Inhibitions are useful on a practical basis: they stop us from acting upon anything and everything that crosses our mind.
Have you ever been on a phone call and became so frustrated you wanted to smash your phone into the ground? I'd guess you have, or at least have experienced something similar. Even though you thought about breaking your phone, did you? Probably not. That's inhibition.
Disinhibition is simply the opposite: losing our ability to restrain the direct expression of an instinct. A society with little or no inhibitions would be chaos — like a bad game of The Sims or Grand Theft Auto.
The real world is a delicate balance of inhibitions and disinhibitions. We all act upon our instincts some of the time, but most of us have enough restraint for society to function.
How the Online Disinhibition Effect Happens
John Suler's research on the Online Disinhibition Effect describes six specific factors. The combination of these factors determines a person's reaction to any online event. Depending on the severity, some reactions can cross over into the real world.
To understand each factor, we'll walk through them one by one with anecdotes from the case studies.
You Don't Know Me
Anonymity, whether perceived or intentional, can be used to justify unethical or unlawful actions. As Suler describes:
...anonymity works wonders for the disinhibition effect... Whatever they say or do can't be directly linked to the rest of their lives. They don't have to own their behavior...
Anonymity was an essential feature of the OASIS in Ready Player One. Parzival describes it in the book:
People rarely used their real names online. Anonymity was one of the major perks of the OASIS. Inside the simulation, no one knew who you really were, unless you wanted them to. Much of the OASIS’s populaity and culture were built around this fact.
As portrayed in Q: Into the Storm, anonymity was also a major factor in the QAnon movement. 8chan founder Fredrick Brennan literally referred to users on the message board as "anons." Q himself was an anonymous pseudonym that still isn't definitively known today.
In the case of the U.S. Capitol attacks, most people in the crowd didn't know each other by name. No pre-registration, purchasing, or screening was required for the events. If you felt passionately enough about the cause, you could just show up. Anonymity is a feature of unorganized or semi-organized events.
Rioters didn't anticipate becoming known or identified by people on the internet combing through pictures and videos of the event. As the post-event investigations made clear, people weren't actually as anonymous as they thought. Things get interesting, and often go wrong, when anonymity is lost.
The main objective for Cullen Hoback in Q: Into the Storm is to discover and reveal the identity of Q. Even though his investigation produced no definitive answer, the implication of Ron Watkins as Q (based on his own comments) was enough to effectively end the conspiracy:
The last Q drop was on Dec. 8, 2020, and consisted of a YouTube link to a pro-Trump video featuring the song We're Not Gonna Take It from '80s heavy metal band Twisted Sister.
Ironically, the "We're Not Gonna Take It" post is likely a direct reference to a scene from Ready Player One. The song is playing in the background after Parzival broadcasts a message to the entire OASIS summoning people to help him fight ICI, just as Q (potentially) summoned people to storm the Capitol.
In Ready Player One, Parzival reveals his identity despite warnings from Art3mis:
Parzival: I want to know your real name. My name is Wade.
Parzival: I said my name...
Art3mis: Stop! You crazy? You don't tell anyone who you are. You can't use your real name.
Parzival: You're not just anyone.
Art3mis: You don't know me. You don't know anything about me. We've never met.
This discussion resulted in the evil ICI corporation tracing Parzival's identity and attacking him and his family in the real world. Anonymity was lost, and it had real world consequences.
In the U.S. Capitol attacks, some members of the mob dressed in normal clothes and made no effort to conceal their face. They perceived a period of anonymity within the crowd at the time of the event, or they simply didn't care. Being part of the crowd was enough anonymity for disassociation. It wasn't until later, when high resolution photos and video were released and analyzed, that anonymity was lost and real identities were uncovered.
Other members of the mob made intentional efforts to remain anonymous. They wore clothing and face coverings that further concealed their identities. Even then, it was hard to fully maintain anonymity. Their choice of clothing, patches, and other symbols still gave away valuable information that could be used for identification. Many people learned this lesson the hard way at the hands of John Scott-Railton and other OSINT researchers.
You Can't See Me
The perception of invisibility is closely related to anonymity. As Suler describes:
Invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn't...Even with everyone's identity visible, the opportunity to be physically invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect.
You know...things like attacking the U.S. Capitol building. In a large enough crowd, it's easy to feel invisible. The crowd gave the rioters a false sense of invisibility and made them take actions they likely wouldn't have done alone.
In Ready Player One, Parzival describes the motivation behind playing the game:
People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.
That's the power of invisibility. When people become disinhibited enough to feel invisible, their impulses run wild with ideas about what they could be.
In one specific example, Aech cautions Parzival about the uncertainty caused by invisibility and the need to be cautious:
Aech: [Discussing Parzival's upcoming date with Art3mis] Z, you gotta be more careful about who you meet out on the OASIS.
Parzival: Aech, Art3mis gets me. She'll get my outfit, there's just this connection. I mean, sometimes, we even...
Aech: Finish each other's sentences.
Aech: We have that, me and you.
Parzival: Yeah, I know. But that's because we're best friends, dude.
[Puts hand up for a high-five]
Aech: She could be a dude too, dude.
Parzival: Nah, come on.
Aech: I'm serious. She could actually be a 300 pound dude who lives in his momma's basement in suburban Detroit. And her name is Chuck.
[Puts hand on Parzival's shoulder]
Aech: Think about that.
Invisibility starts to lose its power when people become physically visible, or when acting in the physical world as individuals or part of a small group.
A quick thought exercise: how many of the U.S. Capitol attack participants would have taken similar actions individually as lone individuals or small groups? Many fewer, and perhaps none. The perception of invisibility granted by the large crowd gave people the courage to go places and do things they otherwise wouldn't.
See You Later
Negative actions can become more severe when disinhibitions are disconnected from real world feedback:
Not having to deal with someone's immediate reaction can be disinhibiting.
Without the nonverbal feedback provided in the physical world, people become detached from the harm their actions are causing:
Immediate, real-time feedback from others tends to have a very powerful effect on the ongoing flow of how much people reveal about themselves.
This can result in outbursts of negative behavior without feeling any repercussions:
In some cases, as Kali Munro, an online psychotherapist, aptly describes it, the person may be participating in an "emotional hit and run."
In the U.S. Capitol attack, people who participated didn't experience real-time feedback from others about their actions. Many people expressed little remorse and justified their actions on social media immediately following the attack. The collective disdain of the nation didn't become clear until the hours and days that followed.
Days later, apologies and claims of "I'm not a terrorist" or "this isn't me" emerged. Attackers saw the overwhelming amount of negative feedback. Some regained their inhibition and faced the consequences of their actions.
It's All in My Head
Radicalized rhetoric and conversation can (quite literally) take over a person's mind:
Reading another person's message might be experienced as a voice within one's head, as if that person magically has been inserted or "introjected" into one's psyche.
Inhibitions are free to roam inside a person's mind, including those planted by others:
In their imagination, where it's safe, people feel free to say and do all sorts of things that they wouldn't in reality.
Over time, continuous rhetoric and radicalization from prominent figures in the community deeply aligns with the minds and belief systems of their followers. If you already hold shared values, the rhetoric you hear reinforces and amplifies the image you have in your imagination.
This led people to say all sorts of things online that they wouldn't (or would be less likely to) say in reality. In the U.S. Capitol attacks, a father and sales professional went from owning a few guns, to making threats of violence online, to physically joining the attack, and eventually died participating. He was described by his family as "a wonderful father and husband who loved life" — clearly a different view from his actions. This is disinhibition at work.
In Q: Into the Storm, Hobart's interviews depict the introjection of Q's ideas into the psyche of QAnon followers. The interesting twist in the QAnon story is how Q's cryptic drops were interpreted and spread by prominent followers. Interpreting drops was literally a full-time job — multiple followers built influence solely from interpreting Q's messages. This two-dimensional effect created all sorts of wild propaganda and real world consequences.
Ready Player One is a more innocent example. Parzival studies the image and media produced by Art3mis, building a specific image of her in his mind. His perception reaches a point where he proclaims his love for her:
Art3mis: You don't know anything about me.
We've never met.
Parzival: I do know you, Arty.
I'm in love with you.
Parzival: Did you hear what I said?
I said I'm in love with you.
You know what I want you to know.
You only see what I want you to see.
That's what you're in love with!
Art3mis's reaction explains the disinhibition Parzival was experiencing. She crafted an image that was highly curated — one that only portrayed what she wanted the world to know and see. Her specifically crafted image was introjected into Parzival's mind.
It's Just a Game
Behaving inappropriately is easier to do when a person sees their actions as a game:
...one's online persona along with the online others live in an make-believe dimension, a dream world, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world.
When viewed as a game, people can perceive that the rules of society don't apply:
"Emily Finch...has suggested that some people see their online life as a kind of game with rules and norms that don't apply to everyday living."
In Ready Player One, Parzival summarizes the motivation behind playing the game:
...after people stopped trying to fix problems and just tried to outlive them... These days, reality is a bummer. Everyone is looking for a way to escape. That's why Halliday was such a hero to us. He showed us that we could go somewhere without going anywhere at all.
The OASIS was an escape — an opportunity for people to create an online persona and play it out in a make-believe dimension away from real world responsibilities.
In Q: Into the Storm, Fredrick Brennan revolts against Jim and Ron Watkins, causing a wild reaction among everyone involved. Brennan went on the offensive on Twitter and during media appearances. The Watkins countered with lawsuits.
When interviewed, Brennan observed that his actions on 8chan had felt detached from the real world for several years. It was only after facing jail time in the Philippines and barely escaping that he felt the consequences of his actions.
Intentionally or unintentionally, many people view social media and politics as a game. It's alternate dimension of existence that provides entertainment, confirms existing beliefs, and allows people to act upon their beliefs without meaningful consequences.
A quick thought exercise to illustrate the point: would U.S. Capitol attackers have taken similar actions in a non-political situation? Say, a hostile takeover of Harley Davidson by activist investors?
Probably not — at least not to this extent. Disinhibition caused the U.S. Capitol attacks to feel like a game. At the time, the game didn't appear to have consequences.
The final factor that drives the Online Disinhibition Effect is what Suler describes as "equality." People are perceived to be more equal when they're outside their normal environment:
If people can't see you or your surroundings, they don't know if you are the president of a major corporation sitting in your expensive office, or some "ordinary" person lounging around at home in front of the computer.
Combined with anonymity and invisibility, people can discard traditional social hierarchies and behave in negative ways:
But online, in what feels like a peer relationship - with the appearances of "authority" minimized - people are much more willing to speak out or misbehave.
In Ready Player One, the entire contest for control of the OASIS was a lesson in Suler's notion of equality. Any player of the game could compete and win. That's exactly what happened. Three young adults teamed up with a teenager and an 11-year-old to face off against ICI, a corporation formed for the sole purpose of winning the contest. Real world identities, resources, and backgrounds didn't matter — in fact, none of these people had met until many years into the story.
In Q: Into the Storm, 8chan owners Fredrick Brennan, Jim Watkins, and Ron Watkins all have non-traditional backgrounds. In the words of Fredrick Brennan, who has suffered from a severe disability since birth:
Behind the keyboard, it doesn't matter that physically my body doesn't work properly.
Online, it didn't matter — they were the administrators of 8chan. Anonymized behind their forum handles, they held a significant amount of power within the QAnon movement.
The U.S. Capitol attack was an opportunity for regular people — bartenders, salespeople, real estate agents — to participate as equals with decorated military veterans, Olympians, and elected officials.
Additionally, the blessing of real world authority figures gave the illusion of approval and clemency. Authority figures partaking in events minimizes authority and makes them appear as equals. By speaking directly to the crowd, their words gave credence to the disinhibitions that ultimately led to a violent attack.
Variables and Influences
In addition to the six factors, Suler's research on The Online Disinhibition Effect also describes four variables and influences that amplify the effect. Think of them like a wildcard that can create intense and unpredictable results.
The first variable that drives the Online Disinhibition Effect is personality variables. Reactions to stimuli determine how susceptible a person is to disinhibition:
The strength of underlying feelings, needs, and drive level has a big influence on how people behave.
The result of these stimuli can be highly unpredictable. It's based on personality variables:
The online disinhibition effect will interact with these personality variables, in some cases resulting in a small deviation from the person's baseline (offline) behavior, while in other cases causing dramatic changes.
In Ready Player One, Sorrento (the CEO of IMI) had several personality variables that escalated to a point of him taking real world action and nearly killing Parzival in real life. Sorrento's greed, ruthlessness, and disdain caused severe disinhibition when ICI was losing the competition for control of the OASIS.
The socio-political climate at the time of the U.S. Capitol attacks was described as "emotionally raw." The volume and tone of messaging and rhetoric was high, as was the division of opinions. This was a recipe for extreme reactions.
Most people who joined online discussions of political violence didn't participate in the attacks. However, enough of them were susceptible to high disinhibition to cause a major event. When the denominator is large, it only takes a few people reacting dramatically to create a bad situation.
The second variable that influences the Online Disinhibition Effect is the idea of the "true self." Suler's analysis of the notion of "self" is wide-ranging. As he observes, it's also prone to ambiguity and misinterpretation:
In an in-depth exploration of the online disinhibition effect, the idea of a true self is too ambiguous, arbitrary, and rudimentary to serve as a useful concept.
However, many dimensions are revealing when applied to this situation and raise important questions:
...some people who need to deny or rationalize the unfulfilling quality of their in-person relationships may resort to a personal philosophy that idealizes the disinhibition effect and the notion that the true self appears online.
Were some (perhaps many?) of the U.S. Capitol rioters unhappy and unfulfilled in other areas of their lives? Did they fit in better with the idealized views of the media, conspiracy theories, and other alternative viewpoints?
This was certainly the case for Fredrick Brennan, the creator of 8chan. In Q: Into the Storm, Brennan reflects on the quality of his in-person relationships:
I didn't spend enough time making friends in real life.
It makes people feel important to think they have information that others don't, especially when that information aligns with their beliefs. For some, it's deeply satisfying to hear points of view that align with their desired outcomes and expectations. This is easier and more comfortable than facing the truth. From Suler:
The same is true online. Some people in some online situations become disinhibited and reveal aspects of themselves. However, at the same time, they may not be not grappling with the underlying causes of that inhibition, and therefore are missing an opportunity to discover something important about themselves - something very true about themselves, but often unconscious. If anonymity in cyberspace eases people's anxiety so they are more comfortable to express themselves, then they also are bypassing an essential component of who they are. Important personality dynamics are embedded in that anxiety.
In other words, people who say violent things on social media sites could be failing to address underlying causes of their disinhibitions.
When emotions are high, it's easy to bypass the question of "why do I feel this way?" and jump straight to disinhibition. Self-reflection is a difficult task — one that many people are uncomfortable with.
Anonymity in cyberspace (on social media platforms) eased the anxiety and made people more comfortable with expressing themselves. Some stopped at angry tweets or parleys. Some took their theories offline and shared them with family, often creating rifts and division. Others became disinhibited enough to riot.
Individual identity also becomes distorted between online and offline personas. From Suler:
In online communication, consciously or unconsciously, people conceal or misrepresent aspects of themselves as often as they honestly reveal aspects of themselves. Any particular media encourages some aspects of identity to be expressed while inhibiting other aspects. Something is revealed while something else is hidden.
This online-to-offline representation of identity was prevalent before, during, and after the U.S. Capitol attacks.
For example: an unemployed father of five hid his personal identity while messaging on social networks. He dressed in horns and face paint while attending real-world events. Nobody knew or cared about his family or work when he was online, attending rallies, or rioting. An extreme part of his identity was revealed, and other parts were hidden.
Multiple rioters took on extremely different personas when involved in political events. These aspects of themselves were hidden from and unrecognizable to family and friends when they learned of the rioters' behavior after the attack.
Identity and behaviors can also differ significantly among various mediums:
Each media allows for a particular expression of self that differs - sometimes greatly, sometimes subtly - from another media. In different media people present a different perspective of their identity. Chat, email, blogs, videocams, telephones, face-to-face conversation, and all types of communication modalities, each uniquely highlight certain aspects of self expression and personal identity, while hiding others.
Would someone who posts online about wishing for a politician to catch a life-threatening disease and die say the same thing to friends or family offline?
What about the reverse? If their boss changed a policy at work that made them unhappy, would they go online and express similar wishes of harm?
The medium and context matters. Nuanced differences cause variation in reactions. It's easier for someone to express desire for harm towards a politician they don't know when they're posting anonymously online. It's harder for someone to wish harm towards their neighbor (a person they know), especially when saying these words in person.
Self Constellations Across Media
The third variable that influences the Online Disinhibition Effect is the idea of "self constellations". Suler defines it like this, adding a helpful example:
The self interacts with the environment in which it is expressed. It is not independent of that environment. If a man suppresses his aggression in life but expresses it online, both behaviors reflect important aspects of his personality that surface under different conditions. If a woman is shy in-person but outgoing online, neither self-presentation is more true than the other. Both are dimensions of who she is, each revealed within a different situational context.
Essentially, we are still the same person even if our personalities and actions differ significantly online versus offline. All behaviors are related. They might be buried beneath the surface and hard to detect, but the signs are there.
Suler describes how our behaviors can shift depending on the environment:
We can think of the disinhibition effect as a person shifting to an "online" personality constellation that may be dissociated - in varying degrees, depending on the person - from the in-person constellation.
This partially explains the online behavior of people in the crowd prior to the U.S. Capitol attacks. The event caused them to express their online personality in a real-world scenario in ways they may have never done before — for some, in wildly inconsistent ways with how their families and friends perceived them in real life.
Altering Self Boundary
The final variable that influences the Online Disinhibition Effect is the alteration of self-boundary. The idea of self-boundary is complex, but it helps to explain people's feelings towards online behavior and offline behavior:
Self-boundary is the sense of what is me and what is not me. It's the experience of a flexible perimeter marking the distinction between my personality - my thoughts, feelings, and memories - and what exists outside that perimeter, within other people.
According to Suler, being online creates a different type of environment than the real world. This environment makes self-boundary less stable:
Life in cyberspace tends to disrupt these factors that support self-boundary. The physical body and its five senses no longer play as crucial a role as in face-to-face relationships...As a result, this altered state of consciousness in cyberspace tends to shift or destabilize self-boundary...boundaries between self and other representations become more diffuse, and thinking becomes more subjective and emotion-centered...We allow the hidden self to surface because we no longer experience it as a purely inner self; but at the same time we also sense, sometimes vaguely and sometimes distinctly, the intrusion of an unknown other into our private world, which results in suspicion, anxiety, and the need to defend our exposed and vulnerable intrapsychic territory.
Similar to the ideas Suler discusses in Personality Variables, reactions towards altered self-boundary vary significantly by person. When online, some people become suspicious and lurk in the background. Others get so angry they riot. It all depends on the person:
There are important individual differences in how people shift along the inhibition/disinhibition continuum. The effect of inhibition or disinhibition might be weak or strong, depending on the person and the situation. People might experience small or wide oscillations between the two polarities. Some might be more susceptible to inhibition than to disinhibition, or vice versa.
Suler's idea of individual variations in self-boundary raises an interesting question: how many people participated in violent discussions or made threats on Parler (or other social networks) but didn't become disinhibited enough to join the real world attacks on the U.S. Capitol? There were certainly fewer people (perhaps millions) who became so disinhibited they carried out real world violence, even after participating in online threats and discussions.
Online disinhibition happens to all of us, but our sense of self-boundary remains strong enough most of the time to avoid violent reactions. It only takes a few, though. That's exactly what happened.
Reality Is Real
As more of our lives move online and the lines between the physical and virtual world get blurred, the distinction remains as important as ever.
In Ready Player One, James Halliday, the creator of the online world known as the OASIS, describes the distinction perfectly:
I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I just didn't know how to connect with people there. I was afraid for all my life, right up until the day I knew my life was ending. And that was when I realized that... as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's also... the only place that... you can get a decent meal. Because, reality... is real.
The real world can be a hard place to live, especially during the current times. Retreating online is an appealing way to escape — especially when our disinhibitions run wild and create a better (albeit distorted) sense of reality.
The real world is too important to lose sight of, though. Without a functioning real world planet and society, the online world would almost certainly cease to exist.
Understanding the Online Disinhibition Effect is a great starting point for learning how to balance the tremendous upside of the internet with the devastating consequences that can occur when disinhibitions cross over. Reality is real, and we have to protect it.