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At first, I thought it was just one of my pet peeves, and sometimes cause for a little laughter, the trend toward anonymity in which online flame-throwers disparage, ridicule, bloviate about and attack everything from ice cream to Obama and Bush.

Then I found out the guys who use fake screen names with references to Einstein or Darwin actually have almost as much influence as the originals.

Everybody already knows that anonymity “makes a huge difference in how we interact with each other,” as University of Wisconsin-Madison communications professor Dietram Scheufele puts it. People say different stuff to each other when they are wearing a mask, or at least say it in a different way.

But anonymous comments also can make a big difference in how others think and react, according to Scheufele and a colleague, Dominique Brossard. They asked some 2,000 people to read a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a string of invented comments. Some readers were shown comments with a lack of civility and name-calling. Others saw posts that had the same basic content, but were more civil. Just the tone of the comments, the professors found, significantly altered how readers felt about the technology.

The study wasn’t about anonymity per se. But Scheufele confirmed in an interview that all the commenters in their experiment had what were clearly fake screen names, just like the real fakers who post after real stories.

“Anonymous voices matter tremendously,” he said, maybe not in what they say “but in how they say it.”

This is about a lot more than America’s ability to understand nanotechnology.

A different college professor at a different school emailed me recently about a column I wrote regarding cheaters and the reluctance of many in academia to clamp down on them.

The professor — who gave me her name but later asked that I not print it so she can avoid nasty emails and “more hate on the Internet sites” — wrote that she does pursue cheaters in her classes. But she also understands the reasons why colleagues often don’t: namely, “threats from parents” and “vicious slander and defamation on anonymous online ‘rate your teacher’ sites.”

“Students who don’t do a bit of work for a semester, don’t come to class, cheat, etc., go on the Internet to the rating sites and ruin reputations and careers, anonymously and without repercussion,” she wrote.

“I quit looking at mine years ago, but the last time I did, there were a number of things that were false — absolutely untrue — and vicious.”

The comments on these sites are often pretty predictable. “Taking his class is a lesson in mind reading, not calculus,” “Little more than a cure to insomnia!,” “This guy basically sucks!, “Hell,” “Worst professor ever,” “Arbitrary, mercurial, and whiny.”

There are some positive comments, too — but I think those are mostly from the professor’s moms.

It wouldn’t matter if people were just reading them for yucks. But, amazingly, even search committees with job openings at least sometimes peruse the sites, said the professor.

Anonymity, of course, breeds anonymity and one caustic comment prompts another. The situation is so laughably absurd that when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a story about the research done by Scheufele and Brossard, the Onion’s A.V. Club wrote its own story headlined “Awful online comments hurt understanding of news, reports local news site filled with awful online comments.”

Scheufele found that amusing. But he’s a professor with a serious point. The trend toward anonymity is “directly at odds” with how the American experiment started, with people fighting for the right to speak freely.

Nowadays, people wearing masks will fight to the death for the right to anonymously lambast each other and anything anyone else has ever read or said — and others, lots of others, will actually listen to them.

Mike Nichols is an author, syndicated columnist and fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. He spent 18 years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writing about Wisconsin. This column represents only his personal opinion. He can be reached at

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