YES FROM EXPERTS IN THE FIELD
NO FROM EXPERTS IN THE FIELD
UNFORTUNATELY, THE SIREN song of incivility has proven too alluring for most
internet users to resist, and anonymous comments sections have become, in Pulitzer
Prize–winning columnist Leonard Pitts’ words, “havens for a level of crudity, bigotry,
meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.” Indeed,
study after study has shown that when people are allowed to post their thoughts anonymously, online discussions inevitably deteriorate into uncivil “trolling” and “flame wars.”
So what is to be done? Some politicians believe regulation is the answer. In 2013,
for instance, the New York Legislature debated a bill that required internet commenters
to verify their names and home addresses before posting content online. Such heavy-handed governmental intrusions would likely prove impractical, ineffectual and unconstitutional. A far better approach is for news sites to simply shut down anonymous
comments sections on their own. Anonymous comments sections hurt brand identi-ties, expose media companies to significant legal liabilities and require considerable
financial resources to develop, manage and monitor. News organizations have little to
gain and much to lose by hosting anonymous comments sections. It is time, in other
words, for the media to end their failed experiment with anonymous comments.
Anonymity can promote freedom of speech by shielding individuals from retribution for expressing their opinions. As such, anonymous speech will always have an
important place in our public sphere. That place, however, is not in small boxes below
articles posted on websites paid for by privately owned media companies. C
IN RECENT YEARS, anonymous online comments have developed a poor reputation. Numerous editorials have called for their end. ;e worry: Allowing internet
users to hide their identity will breed more hateful and harmful speech. ;e problem:
;e same anonymity used by bullies and harassers is also relied on by ordinary people, citizens and activists to express controversial political opinions and share sensitive information to support each other. While banning anonymity might curb some
negative speech, it would also lead to other detrimental social costs.
Forcing everyone to reveal their real names would create a speech monoculture,
marginalizing the oppressed, voiceless and powerless who routinely rely on cloaking.
;e bene;ts of anonymous speech are best illustrated by a story. In 1972, at the
American Psychiatric Association annual meeting, a psychiatrist concealed himself
with a rubber mask and voice distorter and confessed to the audience that he was gay.
At the time, psychiatry classi;ed homosexuality as an illness. ;is anonymous revelation catalyzed a debate that prompted the association to remove homosexuality from
their diagnostic manual only a year later. Dr. John Fryer, whose name became public
decades later, depended on a protective shield for social critique.
Today, as more of us conduct all of our a;airs online, it is imperative that anonymity remain a staple in our media diet. ;is does not mean every online forum is
well served by cloaking. Communities should be empowered to decide whether anonymity serves them or not. Some organizations, including the BBC and The
Hu;ngton Post, have banned anonymous speech, while others, like ;e New York
Times and Jezebel, still allow anonymous commenting.
Prohibiting anonymous comments en masse will also sti;e the search for innovative solutions that curtail harmful speech without sacri;cing anonymity. Sites like
Jezebel, for instance, minimize hateful speech with moderating—forms of intervention that can be applied automatically with technology or human judgment. ;ese
sorts of e;orts, which strike a balance between anonymity and control—and not a
universal call to end anonymous speech—deserve our support. C
Opinions expressed are those of
the individuals or organizations
represented and are presented
to foster discussion. Costco and
The Costco Connection take no
position on any Debate topic.
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com) is an associate professor
of political science
at California State
Beach and chair
of the American
Association’s section on information
Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe
Chair in Scienti;c
Literacy at McGill
University, is the
author of Hacker,
Hoaxer, Whistle-blower, Spy: The
Many Faces of
2014; not available