Attacks On Anonymity Conflate Anonymous Speech With Trollish Behavior
from the a-mistake dept
Every so often this sort of thing pops up where people suddenly think it’s a good idea to “end anonymity” online. We’ve discussed this in the past, and it’s always the same basic argument — one that conflates anonymity with “bad things” that people say online. There are all sorts of problems with this, but it starts with this: anonymity also allows people to reveal all sorts of good things online as well and plenty of people say and do horrible things with their names attached. And yet… the arguments keep on coming. Here, for example, is law professor Danielle Keats Citron in the NY Times arguing that the First Amendment shouldn’t protect trolls online, and the way to deal with it is to “revoke the privilege of anonymity:
Intermediaries — usually the websites where trolls post comments — can step in to revoke the privilege of anonymity, or even remove abusive speech that violates their community guidelines but when trolling turns into cyberharassment or cyberstalking, the law can and should intervene.
Meanwhile, a Washington Post article by Kevin Wallsten and Melinda Tarsi talks up their “research” which (the headline suggests) says we should do away with anonymous comments entirely. The reasoning? Their study showed that people liked websites less when they had anonymous comments.
To shed light on whether anonymous comments actually matter for how people feel towards the media, we conducted a survey experiment in which Internet users were exposed to varying amounts of media criticism in an anonymous comments section attached to a hypothetical news story from USA Today. Specifically, our subjects were randomly assigned to a “media praise” condition (where comments used positive adjectives to describe the high quality of the outlet’s reporting), a “media criticism” condition (where comments used negative adjectives to address the low quality of the outlet’s reporting), a “mixed” condition (where half of the comments were drawn from the “media praise” condition and half were drawn from the “media criticism” treatment) or a “no comments” condition (where the comments section was left empty). We then asked our participants to rate the overall news media and USA Today on a “feeling thermometer.”
Consistent with the concerns of the “no anonymity” movement, we found strong evidence that anonymous posts shape the attitudes of news audiences. Specifically, we found that Internet users became significantly more negative towards the news media and USA Today when exposed to a story with an anonymous comments section. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that this pattern of negativity held even when the anonymous comments praised the media’s reporting. Below is a graph showing the average rating of USA Today and the news media in each experimental condition:
Of course, that focuses just on a comment section in which the focus is on cheering on or complaining about the reporting. What about all of the useful conversations and discussions that are enabled because of the anonymity? That gets totally ignored. As we’ve noted over and over again in our weekly highlighting of the most insightful and funniest comments — as voted on by the community here — it’s quite common to see anonymous comments come out on top. And that’s because many of our commenters — both anonymous and not — often join in on the conversation, rather than just drop two cents about whether they like or dislike the article itself (which the study above presumes).
Thankfully, at least some are pushing back on this silly idea of banning anonymity. Gabriella Coleman has a great NY Times piece about the important values of anonymity and even how it enables those marginalized by society or victims of crimes to speak out where they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do so:
But we should also consider what we would lose were we to ban, or even discourage, the use of anonymity on the Internet. Debates about trolls routinely conflate anonymity with incivility but a broader look at online activities reveals that public good can come when users can hide their identity.
For example, medical patients and mothers discuss sensitive issues (be they clinical or related to parenting) in pseudonymous forums, allowing for candid discussions of what might otherwise be stigmatizing subjects. Anonymous activists rely on the web for whistle-blowing or to speak truth to power without fear of retribution. And, in a strange twist, victims of hate crimes use anonymity to speak out as well: anonymity can empower those who seek consolation and justice to speak out against assailants enabled by the same processes.
Anonymous expression has been a foundation of our political culture since its inception, underwriting monumental declarations like the Federalist Papers. At its best, it puts the attention on the message, rather than the messenger.
Yes, some people abuse anonymity, but many use it wisely. And yes, some people are obnoxious online. But confusing the two things and assuming that anonymity automatically leads to obnoxious behavior is just wrong. We wouldn’t be the site we are today if we didn’t make it easy for anyone to comment, anonymously or not. The contributions in our community from people who choose to remain anonymous are often insightful, witty and educational. Are there some people who abuse the privilege? Sure. But focusing on the few bad players and wiping out a powerful tool because of it seems incredibly short sighted.