Arianna Huffington versus history: Will real names stop trolls, or just free speech?

The Internet: Now 30% Nicer! Or at least that’s the hope as Huffington Post moves away from anonymous comments to fight trolls that founder Arianna Huffington said have become “aggressive and uglier’’ than ever. But the evidence is mixed on whether her plan will work, and it comes at a cost.

A TechCrunch post last year noted a South Korean law that required real names for most large websites only reduced unwanted comments by .9%, while another study found it effective at deterring “casual’’ trolls but more frequent commenters were unphased.

Besides, America’s embrace of anonymous commentary goes back to its founding, when Thomas Paine spread revolutionary ideals with his pamphlets.


More contemporarily, Danah Boyd, a researcher for Microsoft, has written compellingly about the cost for users and the community of having a real names policy.

“The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power,’’ Boyd wrote. “What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety.’’

That’s acutely true at a news site driven to give voice to the voiceless, but rampant trolling has left many online comment sections a lucrative, but vitriolic and toxic, part of the media ecosystem.

Is there a middle ground? I think so. I really like Gawker Media’s Kinja, which leaves comments buried unless promoted from above — in some cases, by the post author; in others, from the parent commenter.

Andrew Phelps wrote that the system encourages primary sources to wade in and share their viewpoint, while also allowing smart commenters to be heard without giving up their privacy.

It’s also, as Phelps noted, a lot of work.

“Any journalist writing for a highly trafficked website knows what a miserable time suck that can be,’’ he wrote. “But that’s their job now.’’


And others have even more radically re-thought comments, trying to more directly channel user interests into something beyond a simple text-area box.

Of course, before Huffington unveils her new system, it’s tough to judge it, but her comments already are striking.

“Freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they’re saying and not hiding behind anonymity,’’ she told a group of reporters. Tell that to Paine and his revolutionary brethren: I imagine that they’d think anonymous comment is just plain Common Sense.


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