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Name and address with editor

Online Anonymity is irrelevant: the only currency is truthSheila Armstrong 

 

The Irish Times, in May 2012, announced that its online policy was to change. Before this, comments had to be approved by moderators. Now it is up to fellow commenters to flag offending statements, a policy that allows for anonymous commentary on its online articles.

After a number of tragic and well-publicised suicides in this country, the question of anonymity on the internet has become a cause celebre for politicians and the media alike, with the majority rushing to condemn those who hide behind faceless icons online.

The finger has pointed firmly at ‘trolls’; online users who intentionally provoke, harass or annoy other users. The word itself evokes images of disfigured and abusive introverts hiding under bridges – or in their mother’s basement, to ambush innocent visitors to the web. Often, online commentary descends into just that – undisguised abuse, ad hominem attacks, invocations of Nazis, and even physical threats.

It is no secret that anonymity allows for, even encourages, anti-social behaviour. Studies have proved this again and again, but even the tamest balaclava-clad protester can tell you the same thing without the benefit of a Ph.D. Joe Humphreys, writing in the Irish Times (Jan 9, 2013), even declares that “Anonymity online is the cloak of the coward”.

But  an anonymous opinion does not always indicate a villain behind the keyboard. Nor does presenting a public face necessarily give an argument weight.

Humphreys believes that the concept of “ideas without origin” is “philosophically in the Dark Ages”. But surely it is the idea of identity as a moral scorecard that is obsolete? Identities are constructed, just as morals are. A byline does not indicate a trustworthy source, just as anonymity or a nom de plume does not make a malicious interloper.

Once an opinion has been released into the public sphere, it should, if necessary, be able to stand up unaided, free from the ideological and biological baggage associated with its author.

Malachy Browne of www.politico.ie agrees that it is the content, not the packaging that is important. “The content of an article or comment is the primary concern. Anonymity can be important in protecting whistleblowers. In Serbia, for instance, a website has been created to allow whistleblowers anonymously to submit information to investigative journalists. For more general interaction on websites and social networks, I believe anonymity can stifle real debate because agendas can be hidden and accountability compromised”.

However, Humphreys seems to believe that anonymous input undermines a discussion, as “a conclusion you can draw is that only opinions that people are willing to defend publicly should be taken seriously”. This is not dissimilar from supporting coercion of the citizenry into announce their voting preferences through a loudspeaker on polling day.

Cass Flower, of www.politicalworld.org, believes that there may be a more insidious motive behind the calls for online unmasking. “Our clientelist system in Ireland has a political class with tallymen who like to track everyone’s politics at all times – it is easy to see why it finds the internet and pseudonymous discussion a pain. It is regrettable that vested interests have attempted to use a number of tragic deaths (which took place for complex reasons) to justify trying to bring online media to heel and to restrict rights to political discussion”.

Indeed, anonymity has become synonymous with trolling, and trolling has unfortunately come to import any opinion that challenges the status quo. ‘Anonymous’, an international organisation of ‘hacktivists’, is often described as a troll. Wikileaks does it on a grand stage. However, both of these organisations are frequently described as digital Robin Hoods – exposing corruption and speaking up for the unheard.

Of course, no one is saying that all trolls are virtuous freedom-fighters railing against a corrupt system. Most may in fact be malicious, or just damningly stupid. But reducing a person’s free speech for reasons of malice, ignorance or stupidity would leave democratic expression open to the very few.

But what those who rush to condemn the advent of trolling online seem to ignore is that online media are, for the large part, self-policing. For every exaggeration, abusive comment or outright lie, there are a dozen dissenters rushing to save the day. Online activists take pleasure in dissecting outlandish statements and slamming abusive users, whether or not they choose to disclose their name and address.

And this online policing extends not just to those who comment on media, but to the producers of the content themselves. The suggestion that the media and commentators should be inherently moralistic is rightly laughable. Morals are not universal, but there is something that is – the difference between fact and opinion, between truth and lies. Anyone who presents one as the other should rightfully be subject to any rotten fruit that might be thrown, be it from a respected professional or a nameless face. Calling this cowardice only serves to highlight the tenuous nature of the statement.

Anonymity is not the real issue. Instead, it has become a smokescreen for accountability. But who or what, exactly, are opinions accountable to? Joe Humphreys? Probably not. The writer’s own conscience? Not quite. But the readership? Surely.

In this age where fact-checking has become a joy, instead of a chore, those behind the dusty typewriters need to realise that their audience is not just a passive recipient of their bloated opinions.

Online abuse is one thing. And it’s doubtful that anyone would argue that sexist, racist, threatening or libellous behaviour contributes greatly to any discussion. But to declare that any statement delivered anonymously is worthless or harmful reveals a desire to regain control over media and ideologies that are slipping away. Some might call this mob rule, and it is. But this is also free speech at its most fundamental.

Democratic expression needs to be re-conceptualised in this new realm of cyberculture. It may be naive, it may be idealistic, but the fact remains that opinions, whether presented anonymously or publicly, are eventually accountable to the truth – and it is often the anonymous trolls hiding under the bridge that uncover this truth.

Of course, anonymity extends not just to those who comment on media, but to the producers of the content themselves. The Irish Times says “We are keen to encourage our users to put their names to their work, as our journalists do”.

Let the journalists be anonymous or use a nom de plume as they wish – but grant the same privilege to the audience. The idea that media products are taken for granted because of a name tag, while the audience is discounted for the lack of identity, is a stale one. As Flower says, “Research shows that readers trust writers with a consistently sound track record – the media, or the pen name, is not the issue”.

Allow writers to say whatever the hell they want, wearing whatever mask they want – but make them face their audience, whether  it is made up of anonymous, trollishly-disfigured, or smiling faces.