Every now and then, I hear from readers telling me how much I suck. Sometimes this comes through email, sometimes it’s through comments on our website. But more often than not, online commenters post anonymously, cracking our deft filtering system by mashing the keyboard instead of entering their email.
It’s a phenomenon of the internet age, and web and anonymity have always made good bedfellows. It’s something internet advocates pride themselves on. But anonymity also coaxes out the worst in people, like how the average person becomes violent when surrounded by a riot. Behind an anonymous disguise, readers feel brave enough to say things their mothers wouldn’t like. Psychologists call it the “disinhibition effect” — the idea that, without an identity, people are emboldened to act however they like.
Newspapers, on the other hand, have never allowed anonymous letters to fill their opinions pages. It’s an industry that balks at everything anonymous, including sources. But it’s also an industry that prides itself on freedom of speech and positions itself as something of a public forum. So moderating comments becomes a complicated tug-of-war between policy and free speech.
At the Gazette, we have a cute little policy allowing us to moderate comments for a number of reasons. But we usually just remove them when they’re obviously hateful.
Of all the controversial stories we’ve published lately, nothing was apparently more controversial than the first-ever Style Issue, which was pretty much just about clothes.
A list of “Eight simple ways to dress like man” was skillfully relabeled “eight simple ways to dress like a homosexual” by one anonymous fellow. Our most stylish professor was called a litany of evil things by faceless, nameless internet people. Our most dedicated commenter, who often uses the clever handle “Iz The Megatron,” has posted 23 times this year spewing vitriol at anyone who will read.
But since these are just opinions, we leave them up.
I’ve mulled over the comment policy constantly during two years overseeing our website. At times — like when controversial speaker Mark Steyn linked his followers to our articles — the discussion became vindictive and unproductive, so I changed the system so commenters had to register first.
The discussion immediately died. So I changed it back.
On Wednesday, following even more vapid commentary from anonymous people, I changed the system so users have to verify their comment via email. They can still post using a fake name, but have to use their real email.
Again, the discussion died.
So the tug-of-war becomes a three-way between policy, free speech and promoting discussion — another newspaper mandate, at least at the campus level. If we make it too difficult to post a comment, readers — even the good ones — won’t bother running through our little maze.
A friend of mine, using an anonymous name, commented that our Style Issue photo gallery was the stylistic equivalent to a 15-year-old’s birthday party. When I unearthed her email and confronted her, she said: “As an anonymous person, I could represent any kind of individual: male, female, old, young, etc. I prefer it that way.”
She’s definitely on to something. Because as just a student, she’s no different than the people producing the content — the student volunteers who, despite becoming targets in the process, put their name and identity out to the world for all time. Using a fake name, my friend became an entirely different person: a professor, maybe, or someone with authority who could speak down to the petty contributions of simple students.
I’m not against these letters — if university is good for anything, it’s a place to lob criticism from a safe place to anyone within earshot. But since writers put names on their articles, the least I expect from critics is the same courtesy.
Comments are sent to us because, after all, commenters want to share their opinion with the public. And if they intend to put their opinion in the public sphere, they can’t hide behind anonymity. Even if “Iz The Megatron” is a pretty cool name.