What's in a name?: two studies examining the impact of anonymity on perceptions of source credibility and influence

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Rains, Stephen Anthony

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From the founding of the U.S. Constitution to recent scandals and terrorist attacks, anonymous communication has been an issue of longstanding social import. Although anonymity has been studied for well over a century, scholarship on anonymous communication has been fragmented and the role of message receivers has been largely overlooked. The purpose of this dissertation is to examine the effects of anonymous communication on message receiver perceptions, attitudes and behaviors. Two studies were conducted assessing the effects of anonymity in the context of health information seeking on the World Wide Web and during decision making in computer-mediated groups. In both studies, the credibility and influence of anonymous sources was examined along with the impact of required and voluntary uses of anonymity. In the study of health information on the World Wide Web, the anonymous source was rated as credible and influential as the source whose name was identified. In the study of decision making in small groups, the anonymous source was deemed less credible and influential than the identified source. The results of the two studies are mixed in regards to the role of volition. Although volition played a key role in the health information study, it was not a factor in the study of decision making in small groups. The results across the two studies were used to identify key contextual factors that provide a foundation for theory building in regards to the effects of source anonymity. The dissertation concludes by highlighting directions for future research on anonymous communication.