Online Anonymity Has a Light and Dark Moral Side


Online Anonymity Has a Light and Dark Moral Side | Robert Parham, Anonymity, Internet, Journalism, Civility

The anonymity of online commentary degenerates almost as quickly as columns and news stories are posted, Parham writes.
The Tennessean announced last week its decision to eliminate anonymous online postings by readers using pseudonyms. The newspaper said it will require that readers disclose their identity through a Facebook account.

The news story began with an account of what happened to Randy Rayburn, a restaurateur, who had publicly and vigorously opposed a state law allowing citizens to carry guns into bars.

"Critics [of Rayburn], many of them anonymous posters using online pseudonyms, called him unprintable names and implied bodily harm in comments," reported the Tennessean.

"The level of vitriol was astounding," Rayburn told the paper. "Many of these (gun-rights) advocates went way beyond the gray area and turned into haters. In my opinion, anonymity just leads to a lack of civility in public discourse. If you remove the anonymity, the haters can't hide."

What Rayburn experienced is what I have experienced and witnessed. The anonymity of online commentary degenerates almost as quickly as columns and news stories are posted.

Not long after I started to contribute to the Washington Post's "On Faith" page, I realized that reading follow-up comments was a waste of time.

Folk rarely stayed focused on the topic with constructive commentary. Instead, they split their spleen with anti-religious bigotry and pure anger.

When the Tennessean recently profiled Gospel Without Borders, I went online to the comments section to find a level a bigotry, ignorance and dishonesty that I suspected existed but surely didn't want to have confirmed.

I thought that nothing good comes as a result of bitter, ignorant and dishonest folks having a platform to spew hate.

So I applaud the Tennessean's decision and agree with the comments of publisher Carol Hudler.

"The Facebook registration will hopefully eliminate most of the vile and hurtful comments that too often appear under the cloak of anonymity," she said. "By holding our commenters accountable for their words and actions through Facebook, we aim to provide a more welcoming environment for people to engage in civil discourse on relevant topics."

As the Tennessean was announcing its decision, the New York Times announced an overhaul of its commenting system, allowing for "trusted commenters."

"The New York Times is introducing a new, invitation-only program designed for our most valued commenters," said the paper. "Trusted Commenters enjoy the privilege of commenting on articles and blog posts without moderation. Invitations to become a Trusted Commenter are offered to NYTimes.com readers who have a track record of high-quality comments."

The New York Times is also using Facebook to verify contributors' identity.

The dark side of anonymous online postings by readers using pseudonyms is clear.

But is there a positive side to anonymous online postings?

The answer is a qualified yes.

"The First Amendment right to speak anonymously is well-established, and, at various times throughout American history, it has protected some of the most important speech in our political discourse," observed Sarah Hinchliff Pearson, a residential fellow at Stanford Law School, on the blog of the National Constitution Center on Philadelphia's Independence Mall.

While she recognizes the potential of antisocial behavior with anonymity, she knows the value of anonymity.

"The cloak of anonymity can protect people from retaliation for speaking out against injustice, or it can simply free people from social constraints, allowing them to be more open and honest. These goals are worthy of First Amendment protection, and the Supreme Court has recognized them as important constitutional values," she wrote over a year ago.

Part of the push-back against efforts to eliminate anonymity on the web comes from real concerns about Facebook. And apparently sharp disagreement exists.

The San Jose Mercury News reported on the "nymwars" (the hashtag for the Twitter debate on how folk want to identify themselves online).

Google has sided with Facebook. They agree that requiring real names of real people advances online civility. Twitter, on the other hand, allows anonymity.

Those opposed to required disclosure charge that it increases the profitability of Google and Facebook.

As the debate ensues, prudence requires us to acknowledge the financial incentive that Google and Facebook have to provide a "passport" to online civil engagement.

Of course, the argument for anonymous online postings has a moral component.

Anonymity does allow for the powerless to challenge the powerful:

●     Anonymity allows for the sexually abused to unmask sexual abusers.

●     Anonymity allows for the politically powerless to expose the deception of the military or the dishonesty of politicians who preach moral values but practice immoral values.

●     Anonymity encourages whistleblowers to disclose corporate corruption.

While anonymous online postings do have a corrosive effect on a civil society, they also may have a corrosive effect on secrecy that is destructive.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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