Anonymity — and Avoiding the “Morass of Negativity” (and Worse) in Online Comments and Communications

“We have met the enemy and he is us” — Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

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The prescience of a comic strip’s anthropomorphic possum is incredible, even some 45 years later.

In an electoral cycle unlike any other — heretofore sacred lines haven’t just been crossed, they’ve been stomped upon, set fire to and otherwise obliterated –I was struck by Pogo’s quote as I read Yvonne Abraham’s column in the Boston Sunday Globe this morning, “AG faces sexist, antigay slurs after imposing gun ban.” The piece outlines some of the horrifying — in the truest sense of the word — threats that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has received for trying to close a gap in the Commonwealth’s assault weapons ban. From Ms. Abraham’s article:

Much of it is unprintable — ugly tirades full of antigay slurs, misogyny, and profanity, including the c-word, slung over and over. Callers shout obscenities and hurl names at the junior staffers who work the AG’s hotline. On YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and gun-lover websites, haters are all over Healey for daring to fulfill the spirit of the law, signed in 1998 by Republican Governor Paul Cellucci.

“Hey witch . . . did you ban pressure cookers too?” somebody wrote, referring to the devices used in the Boston Marathon bombing.

“I hope you get throat cancer,” posted another.

“Another [expletive] woman passing laws based off emotional bias this is why woman[sic] should not have leading roles they’re emotionally to [sic] weak,” wrote a grammatically challenged charmer.

They’ve called Healey ugly, her agenda satanic, and taunted her for being gay. One person tweeted that he’d like to hire a homeless man to rape and disembowel the attorney general alive. A commenter on a gun nut blog tracked down her home address and posted it.

“I’m just going to leave this here,” added Anonymous (of course).

Anonymity gives us all the ability to say things we’d never say if our verified names were attached to them–or certainly, if we were addressing someone in person. There is some value in that — certain points on sensitive topics can be made much easier with the protection of anonymity. But this quickly devolves into a “morass of negativity,” to quote Boston sports talk legend Ted Sarandis. And then it potentially goes further, to someplace much, much darker.

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Two years ago, Pew Research published results of its survey on online harassment. In summary:

  • 60% of internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names
  • 53% had seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone
  • 25% had seen someone being physically threatened
  • 24% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time
  • 19% said they witnessed someone being sexually harassed
  • 18% said they had seen someone be stalked

Go back and read these numbers again, particularly those I have bolded. They are stunning.

Many papers have shut down their comment functions, particularly on controversial subjects. In 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times did just that … from a Poynter.org piece, quoting managing editor Craig Newman:

The world of Internet commenting offers a marvelous opportunity for discussion and the exchange of ideas. But as anyone who has ever ventured into a comment thread can attest, these forums too often turn into a morass of negativity, racism, hate speech and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.

In fact, the general tone and demeanor is one of the chief criticisms we hear in regard to the usability and quality of our websites and articles. Not only have we heard your criticisms, but we often find ourselves as frustrated as our readers are with the tone and quality of commentary on our pages.

I will admit to the occasionally indulging in the potential benefits of this anonymity and occasionally leaving a mean-spirited comment in response to another mean-spirited comment on a news story. (God bless The Onion, with their spoof “New Decoy Website Launched to Lure Away All Moronic Internet Commenters.”) To quote a five year old, “I didn’t start it!” Nothing violent, nothing even remotely threatening — but still, I know better. Or I should.

With that in mind, here’s some tips to avoid falling into the morass of negativity, and beyond:

  • Don’t read the comments section of any news article. Ever, regardless of whether you agree with it or not. Most likely, well-reasoned comments will be mocked (or worse!) by mean-spirited, grammar challenged individuals.
  • If you really feel passionate about a topic, 1) write up your response; 2) check it carefully for any typographical or grammatical errors; 3) use the age-old solution of waiting an hour before either posting it, or deleting it.
  • To quote Ryan Adams quoting Taylor Swift, “Haters gonna hate” (or something like that). So recognize that you may get some ugliness back to your comments.
  • And by ugliness, it may be well beyond disagreement — it could be threats. Report those to local authorities.
  • Remember this adage I made up: “Never in the history of mankind has anyone’s opinion been changed by an online comment.”

It’s 2016 and anonymity has enabled a low, low point in discourse. Let’s all aim to be part of the solution.

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