Write Stuff – Anonymous, Part 1

If a few bad apples spoil the barrel, how many trolls and bullies does it take to spoil the Internet? It seems we’ve reached a tipping point, with an increasing number of online media sites starting to ban anonymous comments. But before we rejoice in this triumph of transparency, we need to be careful what we wish for.

It’s a debate That’s been around a long time. As early as 1787, newspaper editors tried to stem the potential abuse of anonymous letter writing by collecting the writers? real names, with the right to publish them. In this American Journalism Review article, Bill Reader explains that the plan didn’t go over well, and editors eventually backed down.

Fast forward to 2012, and the move to ban anonymous comments is gaining traction again. The Vancouver Sun recently switched to a Facebook-account comment system that identifies posters by their real names, and several other online papers have already done the same thing. In May, PCMag reported on Bill S06779; if passed, it would force all websites based in New York to remove any comments posted on a site ?by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post.?

The argument against anonymous commenting seems logical: if people are forced to use their real names, they’ll think twice before making hateful, false, or otherwise harmful comments. Whether It’s online comments or letters to the editor, the use of real identities will lead to a more civil?and potentially useful?discourse. It’s about standing up and owning your opinions, taking responsibility for the things you say.

If You’re dealing with thoughtful, rational people, that approach has merit. But there’s no guarantee that people will become either thoughtful or rational simply because they have to own the things they say. Like Ann Coulter, for example.

Politics aside, it defies even the most basic bounds of decency to call someone a ?retard.? Especially in public. Yet That’s exactly what Coulter called President Obama on her Twitter account, and in spite of the general disgust at her words she hasn’t had the integrity to delete the offensive term.

It’s easy to dismiss Coulter as a radical case, but plenty of other examples exist. Even in the supposedly respectable halls of our national Parliament. In these extracts from The Oxford Book of Canadian Political Anecdotes, there’s no shortage of very public insults by well-paid, well-educated people?the politicians who are supposed to set a tone of serious debate.

Even in the public eye, in a professional capacity and with cameras rolling, they fling insults like ?sleazebag,? ?slut,? and ?sambo? (directed in 1991 at the only black member of the House of Commons). At a debate in 2006, a female MP was reportedly referred to as a ?dog.?

And it isn’t only public figures who’ve grown to have this attitude, this in-your-face lack of concern for others. There’s no shortage of people willing to wreak havoc when their sports team loses. They spill into the streets by the thousands, rioting, burning, and smashing everything in sight. Rioters and onlookers record every moment and proudly post the destruction online. No one appears remorseful until they’re caught.

Right now, hateful anonymous comments abound. But forcing people to own their words might not lead to the result we want. Like the rioters and politicians who claim to have been caught up in the heat of the moment, open comments could easily spiral into an atmosphere of one-upmanship, of bravado.

If a dozen or so people post insulting comments that stay just this side of illegal, will it become trendy to see who can say the most offensive things while using their real names? It’s a chicken and egg scenario, and we won’t really know until the experiment’s underway.

In the midst of all this speculation, It’s easy to overlook the fact that trolls and bullies don’t just live in the dark corners under the bridge of anonymous comments. Often, they’re in plain sight in our halls of power. Next week, we’ll look at some reasons why anonymity can be a very good thing for all of us.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).