Anonymous Commenters: You Can Stick It Where the Sun Don't Shine

Sasha Brown-Worsham

The Herald-Sun in Durham, North Carolina, suspended the comment feature on their website in a move many online newspapers may soon emulate.

Users who would prefer to discuss ideas or the content of the news are being drowned out by a few participants who lob insults at their fellow users. The discourse in our comments section is devolving and it's time to pull the plug, the editors said in a message to readers a few days ago.

People who wish to respond to articles are still able to send letters to the editor via email and regular mail, which will presumably eliminate the anonymity of the web. It's about time!

Online comments can be supportive and interesting. The conversations can get intense and heated and stay respectful, but by and large, these online commenters are abusive, loud, and vocal and say things that no one would dare say to another person without the (cowardly) shield of anonymity.

One might argue that the beauty of online journalism is the immediacy and the ability to respond quickly and passionately, but watching people hurl racist diatribes and hateful words at one another does nothing to increase civic engagement or move the conversation forward.

In June, the Boston Globe wrote an article about anonymous commenters and followed one story about President Obama's aunt, which was posted at 2 p.m. By 2:03, someone had already called her a “foreign free-loader.”

Seconds later comes the lament from Redzone 300: “Just another reason to hate are [sic] corrupt government.”

Nothing in those words adds to the conversation. Instead they build a culture of fear and hatred and anonymous vitriol. This anonymity allows people to explore the hatred and jealousies and anger they feel without fear of reprisal or consequences and it has a negative effect on our culture at large.

When an article about Israel devolves into nothing but anti-Semitic remarks and insults hurled back and forth between two commenters identified only by avatars and screen names, are we learning more about world politics or becoming dumber as a society?

We may never understand why some feel compelled to spew hatred. Perhaps it's envy. Perhaps it's something they see in an article that hits a sensitive spot. Maybe it's just that they're hateful, unhappy people. Whatever the reason, that kind of hatred is like a fire and anonymity is its oxygen.

If you have something to say, you ought to be proud to put your name beside it. If not, you probably shouldn't be saying it at all. Isn't this something we all learned in elementary school?

It's a brave, bold move on the part of the Herald-Sun in a time when so many are predicting the death of the newspaper. It's a move that we should expect to see happen more and more as online newspapers struggle to find their place in the Internet world.

If they can find a way to separate themselves from some of the blogs, which are often so full of vitriol and petty envy that they are unreadable, they may be able to carve a niche for them after all.

What do you think of this decision?


Image via striatic/Flickr

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