There's never any shortage of fodder for those who despise anonymous online commenting. Just last week, for example, U.S. President Barack Obama was barraged by hateful racism after unveiling his new Twitter handle, @POTUS. There were slurs and pictures of nooses and things even more disturbing – some of them cuckoo bananas enough that the typists received an in-person visit from the Secret Service.
Two weeks ago, in Canada, Shawn Simoes was fired from Hydro One after lobbing misogynist comments at CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt on camera. Online forums filled quickly with repulsive sexist garbage in his defence. The vitriol was so unsettling that more than one person in my personal Twitter opined that the only thing for responsible news outlets to do was to shut down all commenting entirely, forever.
"Play this game: go find any article on [the National Post website] about a woman. Read the comments," argued illustrator and journalist Steve Murray (whom I find pretty smart, and very funny). For him, eradicating comments entirely is the only way for publications to show zero tolerance. "Why would any woman want to subject themselves to that?"
Allow me to speak for all women everywhere when I say: We don't. I consider a thick skin a prerequisite for any career in the public eye, which includes most journalism. That doesn't mean that the racist, sexist, nonsensical garbage often lobbed my way by hateful cowards is easy to deal with, or fair. But I don't think that getting rid of online anonymity is the right solution.
Anonymity was one of the first successes of the Internet, one of the main reasons it was an informational game-changer. Internet anonymity is essential for people in dangerous situations, including members of ethnic minorities facing government-sanctioned abuse, LGBT people in repressive environments and investigative journalists just about everywhere.
For many people, anonymity is about physical safety. Last week, on the Daily Beast, Samantha Allen wrote about "Lily," a 47-year-old woman receiving threatening messages from her former rapist. She had avoided him for 18 years, but he found her because Facebook is determined to out anyone who uses any type of pseudonym. Ms. Allen says a number of domestic-violence survivors have got in touch about the same problem, and she points out that although Facebook might say the requirement is for safety, it's mostly so that the network can sell user data for money.
Now that the Internet is so ubiquitous, many privacy and free-expression advocates believe that the ability to be anonymous online is nothing less than a basic tenet of a free society. That includes the people behind Tor, a free set of online networks and tools that help provide Internet anonymity for anyone who wants it. The technology is used by journalists, corporations and activists; it's also almost certainly used by, yes, drug dealers, murderers and child pornographers.
To me, this line from the Tor About page puts it succinctly: "Like any technology, from pencils to cellphones, anonymity can be used for both good and bad." Many people need anonymity for good reasons, and persistent trolls don't care about the rules on mainstream news websites. That's a big reason that law enforcement (and mean commenters) need a better answer than "get off Facebook" when women like Lily speak up about the abuse they face. Thwarted in one arena, harassers move to e-mail, or even into real life – because the Internet is real life, actually, and threats there should be taken seriously, always.
News sites do have a responsibility: Any organization that allows online interaction has an obligation to its employees and users to create a space free of prejudice and harassment. Shutting down comments is perhaps the cheapest option, but I happen to like conversation on the Internet. I've had plenty of thought-provoking, heart-warming and stress-relieving conversations with anonymous strangers, and I'd hate to see that disappear.
Other approaches exist. In January, the Jewish magazine Tablet began asking readers to pay to share their opinions, reasoning that the effort and money involved would deter most random haters. If it were up to me, more publications would try the approach taken by The New York Times, which opens only a relatively small number of pieces to comments, then has moderators read every single one before posting it.
The threat that online abusers pose to their victims' self-esteem, mental health and physical safety is absolutely real. But so is the harm that could come to too many if anonymity were to disappear. Humanity's worst attributes lurk in the dark corners of the Internet, but anonymity is more often the symptom of the problem than the cause.