Anonymityville Horror?

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?

Comments welcome…

Comments

  1. #1 PhysioProf
    August 5, 2008

    No.

  2. #2 Phil
    August 5, 2008

    I would say that even editing the comments of these horrible people is a bit wrong… Never mind letting them post at all.

    Let their own stupidity show for what it is. Editing that is doing little but making you seem a little less honest.

    As to commentators, or anonymous posters, on other sites…

    This is essentially a necessary evil. One which online culture will eventually learn to deal with. In the meantime, yes. They will make people suffer. And other people will want to invent legislation to try to counter this.

    Hopefully we’ll get through that phase without losing this freedom. As the only other option really is a well-developed police state.

  3. #3 Rev Matt
    August 5, 2008

    Someone much smarter than me recently suggested that in a system where commenters are ranked (e.g. slashdot) that anonymous posts should start out with a score of around -30. If the information contained in the post is high value it will be moderated up else it will not even be seen by those who lack the patience to deal with such low ranked comments.

    This is probably better in theory than in reality, but certainly some combination of this plus moderated comments would be usable.

  4. #4 locklin
    August 5, 2008

    Vulgar comments can’t hurt anyone. Remember “sticks and stones…” Sometimes the targets of controversial posts can hurt people (whether financially or physically). Anonymity is very important.

    I, however, don’t have any problem with the website owner removing comments. If the person has valuable information, they can post it elsewhere and add value to another site.

  5. #5 Arj
    August 5, 2008

    Comments can certainly be libelous, threatening, or simply so outrageously wrong as to mislead less-knowing readers. The blogosphere ought not be the wild, wild West, but have at least some minimal sense of civility as in other public gathering places. There’s no reason Website managers shouldn’t expect to have to enforce certain rules of conduct as is commonly done throughout society (granted there will be LOTS of borderline cases and judgment calls people will disagree about).

  6. #6 Bill the Cat
    August 5, 2008

    When ‘freedom of the press’ was included in the Bill of Rights, ‘the press’ was anybody with a printing press, access to a press, or with paper to write on by hand. Anyone could post a notice on a wall or tree, doing so anonymously. Remember that before they lost the American colonies, the British were on the lookout for troublemakers, tearing down ‘offensive’ posts and raiding known press shops to search for seditious materials. On finding any, or suspecting the shop owner, they would raze the place, shutting down the press.

    The founding fathers never anticipated electronic communication over a global network, but they did fully understand the need for anonymous postings.

  7. #7 Brent
    August 5, 2008

    If someone feels that they need to hide behind anonymous filters can what they write really be worth reading?

  8. #8 Stephanie Z
    August 5, 2008

    Phil, what kind of comment moderation constitutes a police state? The options range from approving every comment individually, to Gawker’s policy of only awarding a (revocable) comment account when you produce a first comment that amuses the gatekeepers, to straight registration, to blocking just the folks you don’t like, to Greg’s “policy” of letting pretty much anyone comment and noting how he’s decided to deface your comment if he doesn’t like it, to disemvoweling comments in place. While there’s always the option of no moderation at all, in practice, almost no one does this because the spammers would get us all if they did.

    You may be just using “police state” as a metaphor, but I get tired of people conflating blogs, etc. with the state when it comes to speech. Comment speech is not protected on sites like this because the purpose and scope of the site are not public. They have a public face, but they are private.

    I personally hang out where the commenting rules are loose and capricious (and one site where I have my own set of written rules to adhere to when I comment, but that’s another story). But I enjoy the occasional pitched battle, and they don’t suit the purpose of some sites.

    The question here, I think, is what kind of trade-offs are needed to make each site approximate the kind of place it wants to be. Each restriction poses a barrier to friendly entry in the discussion, each will keep out some trolls but not all, and each is subject to abuse by the person who wields it. I think each institution (including blogs) needs to come up with its own answer. Then the rest of us can choose where to participate based on those answers.

  9. #9 decrepitoldfool
    August 5, 2008

    If a commenter is in the habit of using stereotypical epithets (racial, gender, etc.) I challenge them on it, and if they don’t stop I ban them. It’s only gotten to that level twice but I’m not exactly the crossroads of the intertubes. Really busy blogs have to put up with more of it.

    I filter vulgarities because a goodly number of my all-too-rare readers don’t handle them very well – a policy that I often think about changing because it seems silly.

    Pseudonyms are OK if a given commenter picks one and sticks with it. (Heck, I use one – to keep people from finding out my real name is George Wiman) If I suspect someone of sock puppetry I’ll ‘out’ them in a heartbeat, based on IP address.

    But to answer your original question, yes – especially on newspaper sites – badly behaved commenters often have little of value to say and ruin it for others. Interactive forums like newspaper blogs are almost the only hope that industry has left and they do good work.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    August 5, 2008

    Phil,

    I agree. The overwhelming majority of the time I leave the comments. But I have on a couple of occasions changed the site to which the comment points because I know these commenters are simply looking for links. Link love, they can have. Link hate, they can stuff where the sun don’t shine. Otherwise, I’ve only actually edited the body of a comment once and it was simply an outrageious bit of text that I removed and replaced with a joke about how I had banned the person from the entire internet forever.

    Rev Matt: I like that. Negative 30.

    Bill the cat: why is it that support for pseudonymous posting is usually anonymous? You lose ten points. -40.

    Stephanie: You also touch on another point: The openness (or lack of) is part of the culture. I personally hate having to go through more than the basics to post a comment, and certainly will not register on a site unless I get a free iPod or something (and I’m only kidding about that).

    George: Hey, if it wasn’t for sock puppetry, I’m pretty sure that my readership would drop from 11 to about 9. My wife, for instance. She posts under two names (neither hers).

    And let me be clear: Anonymity is important. I support the concept. But it comes with responsibility. This is why the negative thirty points is a great idea though of course it would never actually work. But yes, the theory sends a message.

  11. #11 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    August 5, 2008

    I, for one, detest sock-puppetry and anonymity.

  12. #12 Anonymous, FCD
    August 5, 2008

    Mike, you are an BLEEP.

    Stephanie, I, too like liberal posting rules and commenting on blogs, but I think it is a good idea to have some sort of comment policy so that people know “what the hell.” So, like Mike the BLEEP, I reserve the right to disemvowel comments after I have warned people that they are going in the wrong direction.

    Probably why my comment ratio is so low, but I don’t care.

  13. #13 sailor
    August 5, 2008

    The only time I invited open comments on a site, it got filled up with what appeared to be random links, huge long lists of them. I contacted some of the owners of the sites whose links were put up to see if it was connected with them, but it was not and indeed the the pages of links that were there appeared to be pretty unconnected. I gave up, it was easier to have people email me and then I could post their comments, it is only about one a month – If Greg’s readership is 11, mine was 0.001. At least some wild over the top hate mail would have been more interesting.

  14. #14 Stephanie Z
    August 5, 2008

    Mike, so far at least, the most I’ve done for comment moderation is delete some spam. But hey, as some pseudonymous person recently pointed out, no one reads my blog. With the traffic volume I get, it really isn’t an issue. No more trolls than your average goat can handle. It could get worse later, but I’ll trip trop across that bridge when I get to it. I’ll post a policy as soon as I need one.

    In the meantime, I’d really prefer to keep the barriers to what conversation there is as low as possible. There’s nothing like holding every comment for moderation to keep your commenters from talking to each other while you, say, have to catch a few hours of sleep or deal with an emergency. It’s a great way to get 12 comments in a row all making the same point. This probably isn’t the blogger’s intent, but every time I run into that, I feel like I’ve found a blogger who is more interested in talking to me than with me.

    Greg, if Amanda doesn’t comment under her own name, who is that telling stories about you? And didn’t you accept that you were finally up to 18 commenters? I did the math for you and everything.

  15. #15 Lorne
    August 5, 2008

    I think we all have to understand that in most cases the people (I’d wager not a single one is horrible) making rude comments and such simply think they have something to say and tend to pick a really lousy way to say it. If it were up to me, I’d leave most comments alone and delete the ones with legal issues, probably replacing them with the reason for deletion.

    As for the anonymous part, how can any of us tell whether any of these names are real or not. The one thing I do hate is where there’s 12 people named ‘anonymous’ posting in the same thread. That just gets confusing.

    As for readership here, I think I count 11 different people commenting on this thread alone. You’re more popular than you think Greg.

  16. #16 Ana
    August 5, 2008

    ROTFLMAO over Anonymous, FCD’s use of “disemvowel” to refer to editing of comments.

  17. #18 Greg Laden
    August 5, 2008

    Yes, maybe I have 12 to 18.

    Actually, Amanda only uses one pseudonym, and that is because she is a teacher. She has commented under her own name. But I think once she misspelled the pseudonym or something so there is a third.

    (Of course, I sometimes misspell my name, increasing my apparent readership a little.)

    Lorne: Exactly, how do we know ANY of this is real.

    Does the fact that this is a fairly friendly conversation related to the fact that approximately five people who have commented above have met some subset of each other in the flesh?

  18. #19 Stephanie Z
    August 5, 2008

    Well, I’ve only met two of you (as far as I know), but I don’t think it would have been difficult to have this conversation before that happened. Of course, you both have big, diverse repositories of personality online. Even though I didn’t know you, I had some idea who you were–at least the you I would be talking to here. So I’d say that a stable “screen name” is helpful in furthering conversation.

    Not that I think anyone should try to generalize from my example, but that’s a whole other topic.

  19. #20 Ana
    August 5, 2008

    WOW I just wrote this big long thing with links to case-law and related controversies and eventualities and it disappeared. And I only used two bad words, punctuated correctly, signed my name and everything.

    Maybe I’ll try again later. Now, I’m off tho deal with five loads of campsite laundry, which is only slightly less offensive and depressing than can be some anonymous commenting.

  20. #21 Greg Laden
    August 5, 2008

    Ana,

    Sorry, I do not see it in the Junk Comments area, so it must be really really gone.

  21. #22 Lorne
    August 6, 2008

    We don’t know any of anything is real Greg (but you probably already know that). We just make our best guess as to what will fit with a stable sort of reality. That’s starting to get a bit out there however.

    The point was made earlier about using pseudonyms to keep the real internet world separate from the real physical world and I was trying to second that general idea and expand upon it.

    Basically I’m for the freest speech possible.

  22. #23 Bob
    August 6, 2008

    Content is more important than identity. I don’t post anonymously but I can understand why some people would (see the unfortunate cases of some medblogs.) Also, I don’t believe in editing posts; I will, however, nuke posts by douchebags, asshats, and other miscreants. I approve of incinerating links if the purpose of the link is simply to boost page rank, though I rarely get useful comments from people who are looking for link-love.

    OT: I wish someone would beat some science into the bozos writing & editing the Next Generation Energy blog on Scienceblogs. It’s simply appalling.

  23. #24 csrster
    August 6, 2008

    Back in the days of yore when there was something called “usenet”. We had killfiles and user-defined message filters (things like “ignore anything in soc.culture.britain with the word “Serb” in the title”). Things were sweet. Why is blog software so primitive by comparison?

  24. #25 Martin
    August 6, 2008

    People always bang on about their “right” to freedom of speech, yet rarely about the responsibility that accompanies any right. Words can be as dangerous and deadly as any bullet, and racism has no place in public speech anywhere.

    There are two basic responsibilities here that I see. First, people who leave comments have a responsibility to do so in a civilized manner. If they can’t, then publishers have a responsibility to censor them.

  25. #26 unicow
    August 6, 2008

    Should such [pseudonymous] commenters be treated even a bit more strictly, or harshly, than identified commenters, in order to keep them in line?

    Assuming you’re talking about self-identified commenters here (as opposed to those you actually know personally, etc), there’s really no difference at all between them and pseudonymous commenters.

    If I identified myself by just my first name, that would actually be even less identifying than using my pseudonym of “unicow”. There are a lot more Matts out there than there are unicows! Same goes for any reasonably common first+last name combination.

    Also, one could always pick a pseudonym that is a real name, just not their own. Without other identifying information there’s really no way to know if it’s real or not.

    So if you actually were to treat pseudonymous commenters differently, how would you tell who’s pseudonymous and who’s not? It would require collecting a lot more information than the vast majority of people are going to be willing to give.

    I’ve got no problem with people dealing harshly with jerky comments, but I can’t see any reason to differentiate between jerky pseudonymous comments and jerky comments from people with “real” names.

  26. #27 Valhar2000
    August 6, 2008

    Phil: I don’t really agree with you. There is something in your idea that letting their comments stay simply lays bare their stupidity, but there is also the consideration that letting stupid comments stay polutes a comment thread with garbage that makes it much harder and less rewarding to follow what is being discussed.

    The owner of the service the thread is hosted in must decided how to strike a balance between those two considerations, but frankly, I can understand a blogger who exhibits little tolerance for trolling in his threads, or a forum administrator who does likewise.

    In fact, if the blogger of forum admin gives adequate warning, I see nothing wrong with deleting any and all comments that do not agree with their own views.

  27. #28 Lou FCD
    August 6, 2008

    There are lots of reasons people might blog pseudonymously, or anonymously.

    I use a pseudonym for blogging at my own blog for the safety of my kids, for instance. Though my personal blog is barely read and my surname isn’t all that hard to find if one really looks, I’m not inclined to just plaster it everywhere for the psychos who comment on the local newspaper’s site to use in tracking down and hurting my kids because they don’t like what I have to say. I live in the Bible belt, and deep in the heart of some seriously right wing nuttery. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.

    That said, at some point, possibly not until after my youngest goes off to college in a few years, I’ll move to using my full name regularly.

    The girls, on the other hand, are a whole different tube of lube.

  28. #29 PhysioProf
    August 6, 2008

    Does the fact that this is a fairly friendly conversation related to the fact that approximately five people who have commented above have met some subset of each other in the flesh?

    Fuck you! HAHAHAHAH!

  29. #30 themadlolscientist, FCD
    August 7, 2008

    I don’t think anonymity itself is (or should be) the issue. Some of the worst tardazoids use their real names, as if they’re proud of their stupidity. (PZ’s Dungeon is full of them.) Same goes for spammers. (C. David Parsons, tardazoid and spammer, are you listening?)

    If someone feels that they need to hide behind anonymous filters can what they write really be worth reading?

    With all due respect, if you choose to ignore what someone says because you don’t approve of the name they’re using, that says more about you than it does about them. There are some good reasons for using a pseudonym. Someone (Lou_FCD, I think) has already mentioned personal and family safety. Fear of reprisals from employers is another. (I’d be surprised if any of the Wal-Martyrs is using his/her real name.)

    As for myself, I hide behind an alias because I’m basically shy (yeah, yeah, I know… no one ever believes me when I say that, but I’m a true introvert). I’m pretty much the same person online as IRL, but the pseudonym provides just enough of a personal “buffer” to let me participate without feeling too exposed. If things get too hot in the public kitchen, I still have an intact private space to retreat to until things cool off.

    As for hostility and stupidity, I think dsmvwlng the perps’ comments and rickrolling their links are brilliant strategies. People should be banned outright only with overwhelming justification (such as hate speech, continuing hostility, harassment, threats, repeated spamming) and after fair public warning. If a moderator decides a comment is offensive enough to warrant deletion as opposed to dsmvwlng, it should be replaced with a “post deleted” indicator, along with the reason for the deletion, to serve as that warning.

    Back to my original point: For the most part, I think it’s far better that we err on the side of tolerance and make our judgments based on what people have to say rather than on what they choose to call their online personae.

    That’s way too many brass farthings’ worth of my story, and I’m sticking to it. YMMV; AWYSB. :-)