Tuesday, June 28, 2022

In defense of online anonymity, by Mike Luca in the WSJ

Mike Luca writes about anonymity as a feature of market design, in the WSJ:

In Defense of Online Anonymity. Lack of transparency on the internet may help fuel toxic dialogue, but it also encourages honest feedback and protects people against discrimination  By Michael Luca

"Anonymity on the internet has gotten a bad rap lately, and for good reason. The shield of anonymity has contributed to a toxic online ecosystem that is too often marred by cyberbullying, misinformation and other social ills. Removing anonymity has the potential to foster accountability and trust. 


"But this overlooks an important fact: The internet needs some anonymity.  ...The relatively anonymous nature of online transactions removed markers of race, gender and other factors that sometimes were used to discriminate against customers in conventional transactions.


"As an economist studying the design of markets and platforms, I concentrate on whether companies are creating ecosystems that are both efficient and inclusive. My collaborators Ben Edelman, Dan Svirsky and I set out to understand the implications of Airbnb’s design choices. In 2015 we conducted an audit study, building on an approach used to analyze labor markets and offline rental markets. We sent identical booking requests to thousands of hosts, varying only the user’s name—using some names that birth records show to be more common among Black Americans and other names that are more common among white Americans. We found that the Black “guests” were roughly 16% less likely to be accepted, and the discrimination was similar whether hosts had only a single listing or multiple ones.

"In response to our research, Airbnb commissioned a task force and then gradually reintroduced anonymity at various steps in the process. Since 2018, hosts have been required to make a decision about whether to accept or reject a guest before seeing their picture. In Oregon, the site has been spurred to go further by a lawsuit from Airbnb customers there who alleged discrimination on the basis of their names. Since January, the names of Oregon-based guests are no longer disclosed before owners accept their bookings.


"Of course, anonymity needs to be implemented thoughtfully and comes with its own risks; the same anonymity that can help to protect honest feedback might protect illegitimate feedback as well. My research with Giorgos Zervas, published in the journal Management Science in 2016, found evidence of businesses extensively engaging in fake reviews, enabled in part by the shield of anonymity. Work by economists Dina Mayzlin, Yaniv Dover and Judy Chevalier, published in the American Economic Review in 2014, found that fake reviews are more common when there is less verification of reviews. Anonymity can also make us feel more disconnected even while exchanging views."

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