Law in the Internet Society

Surveillance, anonymity and pro-social behavior

-- By ClaireCaton - 21 Nov 2020 - second draft 1 Jan 2021

People are naturally inclined to seek security. The Hobbesian social contract intervenes to ensure security by alienating individual freedoms. By entering into the social contract, people willing to live in a democratic society have virtually accepted a limitation of their freedom in exchange for laws guaranteeing their security. This parable illustrates a theoretical agreement between the people and the state on how the people will be governed.

But people likely behave differently when they are on their own than when they are in the public sphere. It goes from the way they dress, the way they talk, to whether they will abide by legal rules. When people find themselves on their own, i.e. when they are not seen by others, they only have to deal with their self-consciousness. But when they are outside of their private sphere, they are facing public judgment. The feeling of shame and fear of being judged and pointed out by others in the social organization could be a wellspring of individual integrity. The guilt at being seen to do what they have symbolically agreed not to do can be a trigger for compliance to social standards.

If people comply with the rules only when being watched, then surveillance would be a condition for pro-social-behavior. But self-discipline and individual moral standards should be taken into account to explain people’s behavior and surveillance might only help enhance social compliance from some people.

Surveillance through nowadays’ technology seems to be coupled with absence of anonymity. Identity-shielding online and anonymity in general has the power to abet antisocial behavior and lead to a different set of manners than those which would occur in a transparent sphere. Being watched might enhance pro-social behavior (I) and being constantly identifiable prevents feeling of impunity (II).

Section I Surveillance, an enhancer for pro-social behavior

Some people can be more inclined to obey rules and standards when they know they are being watched. Daniel Batson’s experiment on moral hypocrisy and pro-social behavior showed that people are more inclined to behave in moral ways when the sense of being observed is activated within them. Anti-social behaviors are more likely to occur when we think of ourselves as unobserved (stealing, raping, murdering). But this shouldn’t mean that it is impossible or harder to act in conformity with moral norms when we think of ourselves as unobserved. Normative social influence can induce people to conform to the group norm to fit in, to feel good, and to be accepted by the group. Even so, our behavior is not only influenced by others and by society, but there is also a dimension where we act in relation to our own moral or religious beliefs. Other reasons for the compliance with social codes should be taken into account. People also accept the state to dictate appropriate behavior when they believe that the institution acts according to a shared moral purpose with citizens.

However, modern technology has rendered surveillance so easy that individuals are not only being watched but they are also identified, thus losing anonymity. The modern society is structured in such a way that there are the equivalent of eyes in our smartphones and eyes in our computers and everywhere we go. States could argue that in order to provide the stability and safety to their citizens, they need their citizens to act in keeping with the laws, and a way to make them do so is to “provide” surveillance and destroy anonymity. Nevertheless, if surveilling people can help inciting the social body to remain disciplined, it need not be a condition for pro-social behavior if we take into consideration individuals’ moral or religious principles.

Section II Anonymity, a gateway to impunity and anti-social behavior

Being unobserved can make us act differently. But how would humans behave if no one knew who they are and if there were no consequences of their uncivil actions? Impunity, this idea of absence of punishment entails absence of fear. It can have greater power to alienate human behavior than simply being unobserved. Freedom from punishment could be an incentive for people to speak their thoughts freely, but also to harm others. An example of this tendency is what happened with “Yik Yak”.

“Yik Yak” was an anonymous messaging application that allowed people to post anonymous messages, with pseudonyms, that can be seen by anybody within a 5-mile radius. This application guaranteed impunity from any alleged wrongdoing, or the subsequent judgment associated with them. Feeling of freedom through the idea of being anonymous has led to vulgarity. H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man can also depict one way we could expect humans to act when they benefit from anonymity. By turning himself invisible, Griffin secured an extensive form of freedom and impunity. Because he was invisible, Griffin did not worry about the consequences of his actions. He uses this freedom to commit anti-social acts, such as killing and burgling.

Anonymity on the Internet can reveal the darkest side of human beings. Anonymous threats made against students on “Yik Yak” resulted from the possibility to speak and act without having to take responsibility. Online anonymity and pseudonyms allows people to let out what they really think beneath their social facade. But more disquieting is when anonymity in society is likely to unleash a human desire for impunity.

Nonetheless, anti-social acts resulting from the feeling of impunity are only one of the possible outcomes of the feeling of impunity and should be balanced with other features of human psychology: not everyone acts according to the same moral standards.


Being watched and identified can influence our behaviors. Being totally free from punishment through anonymity can corrupt and alter moral principles, whereas the loss of anonymity might make some people more civil in their behavior and more pro-social in their actions. However, anonymity shouldn’t be a hurdle to a peaceful social body because self-discipline, moral/religious principles and integrity are not to be neglected in the social psychology.

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r4 - 02 Jan 2021 - 04:56:30 - ClaireCaton
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