Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Chilling Effect on Internet Anonymity

Should individuals be allowed to use "false names" (or pseudonyms) on the internet?

This story on NPR begs the question. Big sites like Google + and Facebook say no. 

From the piece:

"Part of the L.A. Times site still operates under what Orr calls the old Wild West system, where all you need to comment on a story is an email address. He says those sections have more trolls, commenters who bait each other with racism or personal attacks. The sections with Facebook logins, on the other hand, are pretty civil."

 I have no love of trolls--the internet kind. (I like them in fantasy stories.) While I understand why some have the need to use false names online (just like I understand why Peter Parker wears a mask as Spider-man), in many cases the right to be anonymous is abused--e.g., trolls. Being anonymous allows individuals to be as mean and nasty as they can, which, in turn, can have a chilling effect on others who don't want to be mean and nasty.  The term "chilling effect" usually refers to laws which infringe on the freedom of speech.

I think anonymous internet trolls infringe on the freedom of speech.  They are bullies and cowards.

Once upon a time, newspapers required a phone number with a letter to the editor. I've had a few published in the past, and every time the paper called me to verify I was who I said I was in the letter.  

Anonymous has spun out of control. I respectfully disagree with the argument that internet pseudonyms are the same as literary pseudonyms as "Gardin Winslow" suggests (in the NPR piece).  (Did you find this blog via Google, Gardin?  I hope you're well.) I do understand your need for anonymity and I respect your perspective. But the same?


Internet anonymity has become a way for people to be as awful as they want, to play with their demons in public without any sense of how those demons might stomp all over others. In the worst cases, some folks loose their demons on purpose because they like to hurt others. 

Of all amendments in the United States Bill of Rights, I hold the first most dear:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Language is what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Excercise it.

But do so with care.

A student once wore a t-shirt with the phrase "Freedom of Fucking Speech" emblazoned across the chest.

Oh... Really? I'm glad men and women have died over the centuries for this freedom--all so you can don the F-bomb and stride into the school.  Well played.

Freedom of speech is a powerful thing--and power must be used carefully. I rewired part of the basement this summer, but I didn't let the kids play with the bare wires. And you can be damn sure I flipped the breakers before I touched anything. I only needed to watch one light switch spark and melt to know the power humming through those thin copper lines. Speech carries more weight. Speech has started and ended wars, caused religions to be born and crumble...

And now, mean people abuse it so they can be royal assholes online with impunity. 

Am I worried about the chilling effect of "real" names being required online? 


I'm more concerned with the audacity of mean people to abuse their fellows and then cry foul when someone wants to take their weapons away. 



Brendan P. Myers said...

Google+ and Facebook want to end Internet anonymity only because it will increase their own market share, as sites use one or the other for authentication.

I'm a fan of Internet anonymity, regardless of what the trolls or racists or Nazis have to say. I think it's important for us to know and be reminded every day that there are still people like this out there.

Sending them underground won't change the way they think. And because someone's 'feewings' might be hurt is the worst reason of all.

Brendan P. Myers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Trolls using fake names don't frighten me nearly as much as the trolls who use their real ones. I've seen some particularly abhorrent stuff from people on Facebook, and if those accounts were fake then they did an overly-elaborate job of it.

Aaron Polson said...

Brendan - Now you've hurt my feewings and I'm going to go cry in the corner. ;)

Gef - Scary. Too scary.

Alan W. Davidson said...

In a perfect world this sort of censure wouldn't be needed. I'm all for folks having to ID themselves out in the Wild West of the Internet.

I'll bet you that over 90% of the trolls spewing hurtful or hateful language wouldn't dare do that in a public forum.

Vyrdolak said...

Invariably, the more loudly someone is proclaiming their "right to free speech," the more egregiously they're abusing that right. Anonymous speech needs no protection, since no one need fear any consequences for making it. It's only individuals with the courage to take responsibility for their words and publicly stand up for them that need protection. No one will ever suppress "anonymous." Anonymous Internet venues always become troll-havens very, very quickly.

S. Williams said...

Sometimes the trolls are funny (usually not intentionally on their part) whenever there is article about a new archeology find, its fun to scroll down to the moronic Darwin and religion debates. And its also miraculous how the Tea party type propaganda can slipped into just about any news article even one about baking cookies.

The thing about Trolls is they only have the power you give them. when my four year old starts throwing “poo poo” in every sentence, ignoring him makes him stop faster than any possible reaction on my part.

Aaron Polson said...

Alan - I'm moving to that perfect world. ;)

Vyrdolak - So true.

Sam - Funny... The ignoring trick works with my high school students, too.

brady said...

Hm. Did my comment get deleted, or did I just fail to post? If the former, I'm sorry if I said something that caused offense. If the latter, well, it probably wasn't too interesting to begin with.

Anonymous said...

You make a good point about trolls using the cover of anonymity to be mean and nasty.

My concern is internet safety. In the early days of the internet and I think this is true more now than it was then, the advice was to never give out personal information over the internet. Criminals are becoming more and more sophisticated. We've seen them use facebook to identify potential targets for burglary. I'm sure it is being used for identity theft. And then there are the predators looking for prey.

And don't forget the wackos who will find you and physically hurt you, if they don't like what you say. Take a stand on a hot issue like abortion or gay marriage or saying the pledge of allegiance and include your name and address, and you may just end up having some nutjob taking a potshot at you.

There needs to be a better way of handling trolls without putting oneself in harms way.

I have a google account and you know who I am, but I find it amusing to post this anonymously. :)

Aaron Polson said...

Brady - Hmmmm... indeed.

Anon - Very good points. Maybe I'm just a chickensh*t and avoid the hot buttons online. We can all agree on puppies, right? Everyone likes puppies...

Daniel Powell said...

Evening, Aaron.

It's a flat-out bad trend for culture. Anonymous idiocy (and it takes so many terrible forms, from sexism to racism to ageism and every cultural hang-up in between) weakens a strong democracy.

It's obviously a personal choice for me, but I think people should have to sign what they write. Sign it, and own it.

Anonymous posting doesn't serve progress. It serves chaos and anger and hatred.

And it's so EASY to walk away from.

Not optimal. Not optimal at all...

brady said...

Should I take your cryptic-ness (crypticity? cryptitude?) to indicate that I did indeed get bah-leted? Fair enough. Anonymous articulated my point better anyway.

As I understand it, anonymity is a pretty crucial deal in the fan-fiction community, and has to be in order to protect against potential claims of copyright infringement.

And no one can stop me from publishing my Melrose Place fanfic.

Aaron Polson said...

Brady - Not at all. Your other post (there was another post?) didn't show. I thought you were joking...

Seriously. You can have all the Melrose Place fanfic you want.

Daniel - John Hancock would love your attitude. Big signatures, people. BIG.

Diana said...

Back again and posting with my google account instead of anonymously. :)

@Daniel, I see your point. In an ideal world one would be able to state their opinion without fear of reprisals. But we don't live in an ideal world, we live in a world filled with irrational, unreasonable people who take a difference of opinion as a personal attack.

We also have people on the extreme ends of an issue who think that is okay to murder someone to support their cause. In 1990, the Animal Liberation Front murdered the Univ. of Tenn. Dean of the College on Veterinary Medicine. Anti-abortionists murdered a doctor in Pensacola, FL.

Most recently, a woman in Oklahoma tried to kill another woman with her SUV, because the woman looked like Casey Anthony. She was going to see justice done, despite the fact that Casey Anthony was still in jail in Florida at the time.

This is not a venue for hot issues, so there is no need for anonymous posting here. But my local newspaper, the fur flies and some of the people are crazy, scary people. I post under a pseudonym there, because I don't want them to come knocking on my door.

Katey said...

The thing that people blissfully ignore about all rights and freedoms is that they are to be exercised at will -- EXCEPT when they infringe upon the rights of others. That's the deal. That's what even the staunchest libertarian must realize the government exists for. Protection of EVERYONE's rights.

Anonymous posting... I do understand the need for safety. I grew up relatively sheltered, but my husband grew up in one of the biggest cities in India without a lot of money. He's way more paranoid than I, and with good reason. So I do think people should be allowed to choose what makes them personally comfortable, but I also think people who post anonymously must be taken with a grain of salt. Not to say written off completely -- which, to be frank, I tend to do myself.

When it's really annoying is when they can actually affect the outcome of something -- a rating, a decision of some kind. And I support the right of all private companies and individuals to ban anonymous comments wholeheartedly, and feel much better participating at places where they do.

Aaron Polson said...

Damn Katey. You always school me.