This Boston Globe piece on nasty anonymous Internet commenters certainly has inspired a lot of comments — more than 200 at this writing. (Here’s one, from “DoctorEvil”: “I have nothing to say other than that the Globe is the worst newspaper on the planet. Have a nice day.”)
It’s easy to abhor what passes for “dialogue” on news sites and popular blogs. It’s mostly insults, innuendo, slander, profanity, conspiracy theories, product pitches and worse. That’s why I rarely read the comments on blog posts or news stories.
And yet, I’m not sure about this:
Online postings can sway political opinion and heavily influence whether products or businesses thrive or fail. They can make or break reputations and livelihoods. On one side, anonymous comments give users the freedom to be completely candid in a public forum. On the other, that freedom can be abused and manipulated to spread lies or mask hidden agendas. With all that in the balance, the thinking goes, shouldn’t we know who’s saying these things?
Hang on a second. First of all, this makes it sound like anonymously influencing political opinion is a bad thing, which doesn’t extend much hope to the online citizens of places like Iran or China. Second, it should be obvious to anyone with a modem, TV, radio or subscription to the Boston Globe that anonymous commenters are pretty insignificant when it comes to opinion-swaying, reputation-breaking, lying and agenda-hiding.
But while the article strives to bring a human face to the deeply engaged readers who wish to remain anonymous on the Boston Globe‘s website, it also strains to imply that they represent a threat to civilized dialogue — they’re a “problem” that needs to be “solved” by ever-more-intrusive website registration procedures. (Not a single expert quoted in the story suggests otherwise.)
I’m sure a lot of the hand-wringing over comments is driven by a legitimate fear of the coarsening of public debate. I also suspect that most of it is driven by the shock of reporters and editors seeing readers dump all over their hard work in real time.
Either way, it’s fascinating to see some journalists — our leading free-speech advocates — cheering on ideas that dis-empower unfettered expression. If they had their way, they’d turn the simple process of typing “Teh Celtics suck!” onto a newspaper’s website into something nearly as complicated as registering to vote.
Which is another form of anonymous expression that seems to work pretty well, come to think of it.