I’ve come to this conclusion after a lot of thought and many conversations with advocates on both sides. Like most arguments, this one isn’t black and white; there are compelling pros as well as cons. But the increasing lack of civil discourse (or civility) in the comment sections of news stories, and the impact of trolling on real people, has led me to believe transparency must be part of the mix.
The catalyst for my decision was a deep dive into Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. (I referenced Ronson and his research in this earlier blog.) In the book, Ronson interviews people who were shamed, mostly online, for infractions great and small, silly and stupid. Along the way, Ronson paints a portrait of the masses that, the reader realizes with growing dismay, is all of us—whether we dive into the mud with the trolls or give tacit approval to their antics.
“The powerful, crazy, cruel people I usually write about tend to be in far-off places,” he writes. “The powerful, crazy, cruel people were now us. It felt like we were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws, and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.”
Those hostilities—rarely waged face-to-face, but rather launched from behind the lines of anonymity—often destroy people’s lives and livelihoods. Yes, many of the examples in Ronson’s book are reprehensible, ranging from deliberate acts of deceit to moments of exceptionally bad judgment. But do they justify job losses that impact innocent family members? Do they make death threats and rape threats somehow okay? Do they validate the never-ending fear of a poorly considered joke outliving every apology, every effort to make amends? Are they so worth protecting that the occasional suicide can be dismissed as collateral damage?
Ronson admits to having been part of the problem and has since limited his online criticism. “I miss the fun a little. But it feels like when I became a vegetarian. I missed the steak, although not as much as I’d anticipated, but I could no longer ignore the slaughterhouse.”
My hardworking friends in the news media worry that eliminating pseudonyms and anonymity will greatly diminish online interaction. They argue that they haven’t the resources to check the identity of posters—after all, just because someone signs his comment “John Smith” doesn’t mean that’s who he really is, and confirming it requires staff and time today’s woefully understaffed media don’t have. They point to comment sections as a platform for dialogue, a way to engage readers in the discussion.
All of that is true. Like I said, this isn’t a black-and-white argument. And let’s be clear, eliminating anonymous posts on mainstream news media sites won’t come close to stopping the online shaming that Ronson writes about. (Nor does Ronson take this position in his book.)
Yet it’s worth noting that a number of prominent websites have nixed comments in recent months, including CNN, Popular Science, Gawker Media and others. (Most still allow discussion—good, bad or ugly—on their social media sites.) “You've given us a stunning example of just how unfathomably ugly the internet can be," wrote the editors of Jezebel when it yanked the plug on comments.
“But … freedom of speech!” some cry. Yes indeed, and it’s one of our most cherished. Definitely worth protecting. That’s why I’m not suggesting it be taken away; I’m saying it’s time for people to own it.