Anonymity: Good for bringing issues to light or only a license to troll? | Pressing Issues | Gina Channell Wilcox | |

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By Gina Channell Wilcox

Anonymity: Good for bringing issues to light or only a license to troll?

Uploaded: Dec 26, 2013

The lead from a recent Associated Press story caught my attention. The author, Barbara Ortutay, wrote, "Mix blatant bigotry with poor spelling. Add a dash of ALL CAPS. Top it off with a violent threat. And there you have it: A recipe for the worst of online comments, scourge of the Internet."

It was almost like Ortutay had been reading our Town Square forums.

The forums, which have been around for about seven years now, are supposed to be a venue for civilized conversations and a healthy exchange of ideas. That was the original intent, and it is a very good goal.

"Civilized" is not a word I would use to describe our forums; "conversations" is even a stretch. Some of the "ideas" brought forth are appalling, even for the most cynical of us. We have some online personalities who are addicted to posting, and posting the most inane - sometimes offensive - comments. All day, every day. I spent about an hour on Christmas Day monitoring the forums and removing comments.

Yes, Christmas Day.

While there are positive aspects to anonymous postings, far too many people see it as a license to spew forth hate and nonsense with impunity. Some organizations are trying to rein in the comments by forcing commenters to register. For example, YouTube now requires users to log into Google Plus to make a comment. Huffington Post is also taking steps to reduce homophobic, racist, hate-filled speech by employing moderators to sift through comments (even on Christmas Day). While it has always been mandatory for users to register before commenting on HuffPo, they are now requiring that registrants provide an email address.

I know for a fact that when we take away complete and total anonymity by restricting posting to only registered users on our Town Square forums, the number of posts I would not repeat in public or allow my daughter to read decreases substantially. A registered user can still use a "handle" instead of his or her real name, so other users won't necessarily know exactly who the comment is from. However, just the fact that there is some link between that post and an email address that staff members can see is enough to keep most comments mostly civil.

Some statistics Ortutay used in her AP story show a wave of change in how newspapers are handling comments. Many have stopped allowing anonymous posts. Ortutay wrote, "Of the largest 137 U.S. newspapers - those with daily circulation above 50,000 - nearly 49 percent ban anonymous commenting, according to Arthur Santana, assistant communications professor at the University of Houston. Nearly 42 percent allow anonymity, while 9 percent do not have comments at all."

The advantages of anonymity include the ability to speak out on topics and bring issues to the public without repercussions. The major disadvantage, in my humble opinion, is that anonymity gives some people with too much time on their hands a license to troll. And these trolls post hate-filled and / or stupid comments that make people afraid to post and require a lot of time for staff members to moderate.

What do you think? Do the advantages of anonymity outweigh the disadvantages?