Revisiting anonymity on the Internet

I have said many times that anonymity on the Internet is the single worst thing to happen to political discourse in the last 100 years. That was reinforced last week, when an “anonymous” troll on Herald-Times story comments accused me of pleading for al-Qaeda and being a member of the KKK because I criticized the Obama administration for killing a 16 year old boy who had no connections to terrorism while he was eating at an outdoor restaurant. The boy’s father, Anwar al-Awlaki, was assassinated earlier by a drone strike.

(For more on targeted assassinations, see here and here and here and here and here and here.)

It is outrageous that the troll is allowed to post under the cover of darkness, and that Herald-Times policy protects him from being “outed” by his real name. This is a policy that needs to change.

The H-T closed down comments for two weeks back in December because the tone of comments had gotten too harsh. That was probably an overreaction, but the H-T consistently refuses to take two concrete steps that would improve the tone of HeraldTimesOnline (HTO) comments.

First, require everyone who posts does so under his real first and last name. This is the policy for letters to the editor right now and was the policy for letters to the editor for many years before the Herald-Times launched its forum in 2002 and story comments in 2007. There is a robust discussion in LTTE, and that has been the case for many years. I have never seen a good explanation for why what works with a much more public forum cannot work in HTO story comments. This is because there is no good explanation for it.

Yes, I understand the arguments for anonymity. If people must use their real names, important arguments or even important facts will not be presented. Blah blah blah. Ivory tower theories are nice but in the real world the damage done by anonymity far outweighs the supposed “benefits” of anonymity, especially when people spew raw sewage from their keyboards without ever needing to worry about being held accountable in public for what they say. In fact, protecting anonymity hides critical information from voters when elected officials and candidates for public office are allowed to comment behind a fake name.

Second, the H-T needs to be more quick to ban troublesome commenters. The troll who viciously personally attacked and smeared me has a very long and very well-documented history of doing this sort of thing to me and others – posting defamatory personal attacks while never revealing his own name. He should have been banned years ago, as he long ago proved that he is unwilling to control himself, unwilling to be civil, and unwilling to abide by basic norms of civility or HTO comment policy. Deleting the troll’s posts is worthless if he is never truly disciplined.

If the Herald-Times wants to actually improve the tone of comments, instead of publishing pathetic whining screeds about civility in the comments, then banning the most disruptive trolls is the most logical place to start – one that the H-T editor pretended he is going to do more of back in December. Of course, we all knew that was a joke before that editorial was ever published – but it does not have to be.

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