The challenges of anonymity in public, political discourse

Obama and Democrats in Congress had a new proposal last week: require groups making public statement to show their face with their messages, reported the New York Times. For a country plagued with people using the veil of anonymity to mask unnecessary baseness, this can only be a positive change and a hopeful sign of a push for changes in public, political discourse even if only incrementally.
Anonymity and political discussion in the 21st century seems so second nature; anonymous comments and discussions on blogs, news sites, or social media sites are the modern norm. But this has created serious issues and lowered the level of discussion to something much less thoughtful and democratic and instead rather vile and unproductive.
In the same day The New York Times reported this new proposal by the Democrats, they reported how a number of news sites are moving away from anonymous commenting. Major publications such as The Washington Post and the Times have each started or are highly weighing changes to their websites’ policies that would transition commenting to involve real names and real identities. The article describes the case of online publication The Huffington Post:

The Huffington Post soon will announce changes, including ranking commenters based in part on how well other readers know and trust their writing.
“Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” said Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post. “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”

The article continued with a quote from William Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s journalism school:

“But a lot of comment boards turn into the equivalent of a barroom brawl, with most of the participants having blood-alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher,” he said. “People who might have something useful to say are less willing to participate in boards where the tomatoes are being thrown.”

These changes are largely driven by a desire to change the quality of discussion (yes, in part to attract controversy-fearing advertisers), but not by legal issues. Lawyers at a recent conference at Harvard’s Berkman Center stated that unlike in print where publications are held liable for the factuality of everything that is published, including third-party content like letters to the editor, the same does not hold online. Comments on articles, even if filtered through well-intentioned editing for inappropriate content, is covered by a broad statue called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which removes publisher liability for all defamatory and even factually false comments. Publications generally do not even have to remove these comments under court order. This environment has allowed websites to harbor these anonymous discussions that allow racist, vile, and hateful comments to be posted without fear of any consequences. (An example outside of politics of a Section 230 case: AutoAdmit).
And personally, as a person who finds the work of Robert Putnam quite compelling, I see this through the lens of social capital. Having few incentives to create ties and communities – increase social capital through civil society, in Putnam’s words – can have degrading effects on a community beyond the simple destruction of civil discourse. It is certainly too early to start ringing the bells of social destruction as one might try based on this argument, but the negative consequences are certainly cropping up.
Returning to the proposal for campaign finance reform: these changes are a positive sign to backtrack on democratic forums that need to be centers for legitimate thinking and conversation, not vileness and ignorance.
I certainly hear the critics who may say that these changes may silence a minority who, through social pressures or intimidation through violence will become unable to deliver their message. Those Democrats making the proposal know this all too well having become targets of Tea Party violence and racism. However, the anonymity is allowing many of those racist and destructive message to come through that is already silencing those groups. This proposed change – while not enough for thorough campaign finance reform after the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the subject – is more positive than negative.
Photo credit: Stian Eikeland/Flickr

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