Food for thought from On the Media:
Recently there’s been a bit of a backlash against the angry commenter, especially the anonymous angry commenter. Newspapers around the country have had to disband comment sections because of racist content, ad hominem attacks and vulgarity. The Mayor of Hartford, Connecticut, Eddie Perez, actually staged a protest outside of the offices of The Hartford Courant in response to what he called “hate speech” on the paper’s site.
… And so on.
Anonymity is important, for very good and legitimate reasons. There are people who feel threatened by others because of what they say or do on the internet. I’ve been told that this is a problem for women more than for men, though I only now of anecdotal cases, and I’m not going to assume that this is true without some data. There are people who consider themselves to be whistle-blowers and thus need to hide their identity in order, it is claimed, to keep their jobs.
But… what about abuse of the privilege?
If there really are people who need to be anonymous in order to make what we’ll assume to be a valuable contribution, then what do we do about the commenters who are often out of line, aggressive, perhaps libelous? I mean, they are ruining it for everyone else, aren’t they? Should such commenters be treated even a bit more strictly, or harshly, than identified commenters, in order to keep them in line?
When I feel that I or a reader have been abused by a pseudonymous commenter, I simply counter abuse the pseudo-com in the appropriately vengeful manner. I change his or her link back (adding it as necessary) to something absurd, or I delete parts of there comment, or I just throw the whole comment away. I can do that because this is my blog. But what about more institutionalized frameworks in which commenting also occurs, such as newspapers? In such cases, it may be more difficult to implement arbitrary and vengeful rules.
Some would suggest that badly behaved pseudonymous commenters are like the kids in middle school throwing spit balls behind the teacher’s back. They make everyone else’s life miserable because they are the best argument out there for regulating or restricting the web. Every time one of those rare but spectacular cases where their behavior drives (previously depressed, I assume) individuals to suicide, or forces people to change careers, etc., occurs, there seems to be the threat of an incremental loss of freedom for us all. Are badly behaved pseudonymous commenters (and bloggers) ruining everything for everybody because of their uncontrollable adolescent selfish urges?