According to statements made by Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington in Boston on Wednesday, the site plans to end anonymous comments next month, as my GigaOM colleague Barb Darrow reported. Huffington said she has decided there are too many “trolls” using the site who hide behind anonymity to make violent or offensive comments, and that she believes people should “stand up for what they say.”
Is anonymity really the problem with online comments? I don’t think so, and there’s at least some evidence that supports my argument—but more than that, anonymity has real value, and giving it up has serious consequences.
The Huffington Post founder suggested her feelings about anonymity have been colored by recent rape and death threats against women in Britain, even though most of these—including a sustained attack on freelance journalist Caroline Criado-Perez that took place over a number of days—actually occurred on Twitter (which has repeatedly defended its users’ rights to remain anonymous, or at least pseudonymous). According to Huffington:
“Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier, and I just came from London where there are threats of rape and death threats. I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and not hiding behind anonymity. We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet.”
Do we need a “grown-up Internet”?
Huffington’s views on comments are very much in line with other arguments that have been made about the dangers of anonymity, including former Facebook Marketing Director Randi Zuckerberg’s statement in 2011 that anonymity on the Internet “has to go away” because of online bullying and other bad behavior. Google executive Vic Gundotra made a similar argument when the company launched its Google+ social network and required the use of a “verified identity.”
The logical extension of this argument is to make online anonymity impossible, or even illegal. At least one U.S. legislator has tried to float a bill that would do exactly that: Ira Silverstein, a Democratic state senator from Illinois, proposed that Web users only be allowed to comment if they verify their identity online. But would this actually reduce the amount of trolling, flaming, or other offensive behavior that takes place in online comments sections—or anywhere else? Unlikely.
Not only is this obvious from seeing all kinds of abusive behavior occur on Facebook, but some evidence has emerged that shows requiring real identities from online users actually accomplishes surprisingly little when it comes to curbing trollish behavior: In 2007, South Korea mandated verified identities for all users of sites with more than 100,000 visitors—but scrapped the program in 2011 because requiring real identities reduced the amount of nasty comments by only 0.09 percent.
The debate over anonymity and its value, both in comments sections and elsewhere on the Internet, has been going on almost since the Web was invented. I’ve tried to make the argument numerous times that there is real value in allowing anonymity, a case I also fought for when I was the social media editor at a major Canadian newspaper, where I had to defend the use of anonymity almost daily.
For me, the question isn’t really whether requiring the use of verified identities or registration numbers or some other system might help reduce anonymous trolling—it’s what we’d be giving up in return for that small improvement. As a number of other defenders of anonymity have pointed out, there are valuable things we can learn from commenters that they would never contribute if they had to reveal their identity. Comments about spousal abuse, sexual identity, religious persecution—the list goes on.
Is a modest decline in trolling worth giving all of that up? And it’s not just those kinds of comments—a recent survey by online commenting-service company Disqus found that pseudonymous comments provided some of the most value across a fairly huge number of sites using the company’s software.
One of the last times this debate came up, Anil Dash made what I thought was a persuasive argument that if your site has too many trolls, that’s your fault for not engaging more with your readers and setting the tone for your comments. Obviously, engaging with millions every day—the number of commenters the Huffington Post routinely gets—is virtually impossible, which is why the site has 40 moderators and a suite of algorithms to handle the flood. So why not try to look at comments differently?
The New York Times has made at least a small effort to improve its comments section, by promoting some readers to “trusted” status and allowing them to comment without moderation, and by highlighting some comments alongside its stories instead of leaving them all at the bottom. Both of these steps are a significant incentive for good behavior. Gawker Media gives its commenters their own blogs and lets them contribute their own stories—something that should be appealing to a site like the Huffington Post, which got its start by allowing almost anyone to blog for free. Why not create tiers of commenting to encourage better input?
Do we invite trolls and offensive behavior when we allow people to contribute anonymously? Perhaps. But free speech comes with a price, and I think we lose something significant when we start requiring people to verify their identities before we listen to what they have to say. If that’s what’s required for a “grown-up Internet,” I would like to stick with the one we have.
In closing, here’s a TED Talk from Christopher “Moot” Poole, the founder of 4chan, about the benefits of anonymity:
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