“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,” said Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington after announcing the end to anonymous comments under her watch. “We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet,” she said.
It’s true that anonymity allows for abusive expression without accountability, so why is she receiving such a mix of support and harsh criticism from fellow journalists and freedom of expression advocates?
Huffington’s critics accuse her of viewing the issue narrow-mindedly. It’s not that they disagree about the immature and often abusive tendencies of Internet trolls, they just believe she failed to consider and appreciate the inherent value of anonymity and the consequences of doing away with it. Joanna Geary from The Guardian wrote an article titled “Forcing commenters to use real names isn’t the answer, Arianna Huffington”; similarly, GigaOM reporter Mathew Ingram’s was “Dear Arianna: Anonymity has value, and doing away with it won’t solve your commenting problem”; and Michael Morisy from Boston.com went as far as titling his “Arianna Huffington versus history: Will real names stop trolls, or just free speech?”
Fox News’ Howard Kurtz was quick to come to Huffington’s defense: “Comments are great, but I've long felt that letting people spew from behind a curtain of anonymity adds to the toxic and sleazy nature of some of these online debates. There's a reason that newspapers require letters to the editor to be signed. Let people say whatever they want, short of libel and obscenity -- but with their names attached,” he argued. My initial reaction was similar. If you’re going to say something, especially something that might ruffle feathers, shouldn’t you have enough pride to attach your name to it? If not, then don’t say it. Well, it turns out it’s not always that simple and there are several layers of arguments and counterarguments to be made on each side.
Most, if not all, of the rape and death threats Huffington referred to occurred on Twitter, not the Huffington Post. The way that Twitter has handled these situations – doing everything in its power to protect the anonymity of its users and resisting the efforts of external powers to forcefully expose them – demonstrates a stark contrast in philosophies. Because Twitter is one of the most powerful modern mediums for free speech, it fears that the consequences of setting precedents curbing the expression of its users in any way would be more detrimental than the effects of the occasional bad apple. In no way does that mean Twitter condones the racist comments made during the most recent presidential elections, the anti-Semitic comments made in France or the neo-Nazi comments made in Germany via Twitter that have caused public outrage and led to government involvement. It also doesn’t mean that Twitter hasn’t complied with court orders to hand over user information, as in the cases of WikiLeaks and Occupy Wall Street supporters. However, it does mean that Twitter believes that the benefits of allowing political dissidents, the religiously and racially persecuted and other disadvantaged groups to freely communicate with the rest of the world by pseudonyms and without risking exposure, outweigh any potential risks of letting the less enlightened have their fifteen minutes with the same security.
Following a “show your face and own up to what you just said” philosophy is not always as simple as it appears to be on the surface and does not always equate to justice. Anonymity doesn’t necessarily stem from immaturity and a lot of the people who post anonymously are very much a part of the “grown-up Internet.” Besides, according to the Huffington Post website, commenting policies are already “enforced 24/7 by a moderating system that features a team of staff and community moderators, and moderation tools.” The community also polices itself by allowing users to “fan” or “favorite” every comment, rewarding great content by moving it up and flagging trollish comments for removal. Commenters who develop a history of abusive, off-topic or ad hominem attacks are subject to being blocked from the site. Anyway, does requiring users to identify themselves really minimize abusive behavior (see Facebook)?
There are plenty of good reasons to use pseudonyms, and countless authors have recognized the value. Here are a few writers who saw value in anonymity and pseudonyms, whether for safety or pleasure:
- Alexander Hamilton – Publius
- Benjamin Franklin – Mrs. Silence Dogood
- J.K. Rowling – Robert Galbraith
- Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – Lewis Carroll
- François-Marie Arouet – Voltaire
- Samuel Clemens – Mark Twain
- Eric Blair – George Orwell
- Stephen King - Richard Bachman
- Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin – George Sand