It seems I struck a little bit of a nerve with last week’s column.
Comments on the column on the newspaper’s website continued for several days, and even spilled over into other people’s columns. And strangely, the content of my blog post was reportedly blocked in Iran (??!!??).
As a little sister, then, I can say that I fulfilled my duty to poke the bear. And ya know what? I think I’ll poke it a little bit more. Otherwise I might have to turn in my little-sister card.
It should come as no surprise that I’m not a fan of trolls, either the ugly little dolls or the anonymous Internet variety only interested in stirring people up by purposely posting inflammatory or off-topic statements (bridge trolls I’m still on the fence about … just not a fence near a bridge).
There are people with good reasons for being anonymous: corporate whistle-blowers (not random conspiracy theorists), battered women hiding from abusive partners, and a few others.
What’s not a good reason is because you don’t want people to egg your house or leave a flaming bag of dog poo on your porch in return for the figurative bag of poo you left on comment boards.
Guess what? We non-trolls don’t really have any such plans; trolls aren’t worth the effort most of the time.
In 2007, Sascha Segan of PC Magazine wrote:
“[A]ll ‘anonymity’ saves you from is accountability before your peers. It lets people release the worst in themselves through trolling and online fraud, and disconnects people from a reality where you’re held responsible for the stupid things you say. It dramatically lowers the reliability of Internet communication, as people can lie without real consequence. It makes Internet-based activism a joke when any online petition can be signed by a thousand sock puppets.”
By not commenting as yourself, how do really expect anyone to respect or believe what you say? Besides, as Segan noted, anonymity isn’t the same as privacy; he makes a good case that eschewing anonymity could actually increase Internet privacy. And it’s not like no one could ever find out who you are—look to the case of former Judge Mike Maggio, for instance.
The Internet can make people stupid, like the Texas veterinarian who posted on her Facebook page a picture of the “feral” cat she killed … that was actually someone’s pet; she was fired, is now under investigation, and has since taken down her Facebook page. Other people are likely finding that their past Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts are coming back to haunt them and keeping them from getting jobs.
That, though, is still no reason to post anonymously. In most cases, if your grandma would smack you for something you’ve said, you probably shouldn’t post it anyway … but if you feel you must, be brave enough to stand behind it and sign your name to it.
On the Voices page, you’ll see opinions of all stripes, and some that are contentious, or maybe just odd. What they all have in common is that these people have put their names on it and owned what they’ve said because we don’t run anonymous or pseudonymous letters. On the paper’s website and elsewhere, though, you have the option to comment under an alias, though not everybody feels the need to hide their identity. Sure, some might have a different screen name (me included), but clicking on the screen name will bring up that person’s real name; others, though, use yet another alias under that screen name.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have the option to be anonymous; I’m just saying that if you really want people to respect your opinion, it’s far more likely to happen if you’re not hiding.
Not everyone who posts anonymously or says controversial things in posts is a troll. However, researchers at Cornell University (partially funded by Google) devised an algorithm that they say identifies trolls, or “future banned users (FBUs),” with 80 percent accuracy in less than 10 posts. To do so, they studied forum comments on cnn.com, breitbart.com and ign.com.
Popular Science’s report on the admittedly limited study noted:
“Nearly all of the 10,000 FBUs studied commented at a lower perceived standard of literacy and clarity than the average, and this standard only declined until they were banned. Also, troublemaking commenters are more likely to focus their efforts on fewer comment threads relative to the amount they post. In other words, they’re looking for a fight.”
These antisocial commenters tend to get more replies than do thoughtful writers, which is precisely what they want. Why think about genuine debate when you can simply bait those who actually care about a topic?
That’s not to say that trolls don’t have their uses beyond starting arguments. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, uses a troll army to try to sell his version of reality … although, no, wait, he’ll say that that’s a function of Western paranoia and not really happening. And why would he need to get an alternate version of reality out there?
Yep, that’s sarcasm.
Once again, I challenge anonymous posters to shuck the anonymity and send in signed letters. Why? For one thing, it’ll prove you’re not a troll and that you’re not afraid to stand behind what you say—just like the other people who write to us. You might find it a relief to not hide anymore.
Well, unless you’re chicken.