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Jesse Singal

Freedom of screech

Anonymous online comment boards can be obnoxious, but eliminating them is a mistake

By Jesse Singal
June 27, 2010

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THE COMMENTS sections of newspaper websites have become something of a virtual O.K. Corral. Anonymous flame throwers spew hateful vitriol, some of it racist, while those who wish to participate in meaningful debate see their contributions drowned in a sea of trash.

Some guardians of journalism have taken notice. In the latest issue of the American Journalism Review, editor Rem Rieder argued against anonymous comments. Margaret Sullivan of the Buffalo News just announced that the paper’s website will be switching to a system that forces commenters to provide their real identities.

Given the tenor of online commenting — and Boston.com is a salient example — it’s hard not to be sympathetic to this line of argument. But it’s the wrong move, the proverbial rocket launcher employed against a housefly. The collateral damage it would bring — a contrived quieting and flattening of the debate, and a closing off of the sorts of scoops and expansive discussions enabled by anonymous commenting — wouldn’t be worth it. A better solution is for newspapers to simply step up enforcement of their existing comments guidelines, and to quickly and mercilessly delete the comments and ban the IP addresses of serial abusive commenters.

The best argument for anonymity is also the simplest: it makes for a more robust, vibrant discussion by providing protection. If you were the only conservative in an office full of Obama fans and you wanted to complain about the president’s handling of the oil spill, would you feel comfortable attaching your full name to every comment you made on the subject? In the age of Google, any such comments (unless they were quickly deleted) would likely be cached by the search giant, forever connecting your name to your public stance. These stakes are much too high for the casual conversations that comment sections are supposed to encourage.

That’s not the way some in the industry see it, though. In making their cases for tearing off the shroud of anonymity, Rieder and Sullivan both point to the examples of letters to the editor — which almost always appear with a name and town attached — as part of the reason behind their stances. “For years newspapers have insisted that letters to the editor be accompanied by the actual name of the actual person who wrote them,’’ Rieder wrote. “The thinking was that if you want to make some bold statements, you ought to be willing to take responsibility for them.’’

Yes, but letters and online comments aren’t the same thing. A letter to the editor is a one-time, discrete response to an article that can never be fully “retracted’’ because it is reproduced in print thousands of times. Comments are often parts of ongoing back-and-forth exchanges, and can allow people to bring privileged information to the attention of the author (or to other commenters). They can also be banished to the e-netherworld with the click of a button

Newspaper web sites should be very clear with their readers. Commenting guidelines need to be precisely laid out with regard to what is and isn’t acceptable conduct, and it should be clear that in extreme cases newspapers may be forced to hand over the identities of anonymous commenters who post libelous material (the websites themselves, as Rieder wrote, are “generally immune’’). After that, it’s up to commenters to stay in bounds — this is far from a free-speech issue, as the First Amendment has little to say about God-given, inalienable rights to comment on Boston.com or NYtimes.com.

Rider and Sullivan are right that there’s a problem, but it can be solved with the tools already at hand. Overreaction will let the trolls win, ruining the benefits of anonymous online debate for everyone.

Jesse Singal is a frequent contributor to the Globe opinion pages. He can be reached at jsingal@globe.com.

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