No comment?

“The 90-9-1 principle convinced me that many, not all, comment sections are an exercise in faux democracy. This theory goes that 90 percent of us will read something online and move on. Nine percent—I’m in this group—occasionally take time to comment. That leaves roughly 1 percent who dominate the online conversation, and among this smaller number is found the digital equivalent of the loudest drunk in the bar….

“Encouraging a civil dialogue makes sense, so if I could, I’d get rid of anonymity when it comes to participating in the digital town common. I think people behave more civilly toward one another when their true identity is known.”

Alicia C. Shepard, Nieman Reports, 2011

I used this quote to introduce my first graduate-level literature review on studies about anonymous online communication and the effects on other participants. My hypothesis, never tested, was that communities where anonymity was allowed would end up a crowded space where viewpoints were silenced through sheer aggression. Further, requiring identification, as Huffington Post will now do as a matter of policy, will not actually prevent any legitimate minority viewpoints from being expressed.

By requiring its users to have verified identities, the Huffington Post is hoping that instead of censoring them directly, the hope is that users will self-censor. Or, in the words of Managing Editor Jimmy Soni: “We believe this change will offer the guarantee of a gut check.” In First Amendment battles, this is often called a “chilling effect.” So called because after a policy or punishment is handed down, speech is “chilled” or slowed down — prevented, not censored. Of course, the move comes when many are questioning just how private their online activities are, so naturally this all feels very disconcerting for some people.

Then take into account that Pew survey data shows that most people have taken steps to mask their identity or their trail online. In fact 1 in 4 adults said they have posted online comments anonymously. (There’s more interesting data in that report, check it out.) A solid  majority of people also recognize that it’s likely that no one on the internet is truly anonymous.

Before you post, ask:
‘Do I want my name on this?’

The more than 70 million comments that the Huffington Post received in 2012 were already subject to community standards that resulted in some comments being censored. The site has 30 full-time moderators who work literally around the clock. In six-hour shifts, they screen hundreds of comments each hour, like a postal worker sorting mail by hand. They also work with an artificial intelligence called Julia, which applies linguistic algorithms to pre-moderate and flag comments, according to the Poynter Institute article.

The Post is taking reasonable steps to protect its community. Every newspaper of good reputation has a policy regarding anonymous letters to the editor: they aren’t printed. They might be read and considered, but not printed. It’s reasonable to expect that if someone wants to speak up and say something to the community, they ought to do so publicly, with their name and reputation on the line. And we, as a civil society, ought to be able to tolerate that person’s views. A community of anonymous speakers can never truly be civil in the same sense. But, you could argue that we don’t have a completely civil society out here in the “real world” to begin with. And I’d say: Fair point.

Of course, if being anonymous serves your needs or is truly the only way to make your case known (like the Federalist Papers), you can always start your own website or forum, or print your own newsletter for that matter.

The move (and the predictable backlash by some of its users) remind me that this issue is still unresolved, and I don’t think it ever will be. Most of us will continue to “lurk” and not engage in online discussions. Those who do will increasingly have to ask themselves, “Do I want my name on this?”

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