Anonymity threatens integrity online

27 November 2008

Shoot a few and if that doesn’t work, shoot a few more’; ‘let’s sort these parasites out’; ‘to hell with their human rights’.

These comments, and others like them, were all made by UK citizens on national newspaper websites. Their subject matter is not, as one might expect, terrorists, paedophiles or violent criminals, but children. A TV advert produced by the charity Barnados, rallying against the demonisation of children, highlights the shocking extent that people will go to on such websites when talking about young people. Other comments used the language of extermination, calling children ‘vermin’ and ‘feral animals’.

Whilst it is certainly shocking that anyone could tar all youth with the same alarmingly brutal brush, these revelations also illuminate a problem that has grown steadily alongside the rise and rise of the internet. It is now de rigeur for newspapers to allow public comments

to follow in the wake of their on-line articles with moderation kept to a minimum.

The policy of those who invigilate such websites, by consideration of the comments they have chosen not to delete, is to accommodate all views save the flagrantly defamatory or discriminatory. Public discussion of complex issues is not a problem, nor is a plurality of opinions. Indeed such debate is to be celebrated and defended.

What is dangerous about the way these newspaper comment sections function is that most of those who post are anonymous: going under pseudonyms such as ‘jimmyboi69′ or ‘BNPDave’. No-one is responsible or accountable for the hatred and malice they spew into the public domain.

Deliberative democracy is central to informed public opinion. Rational arguments should be born out in open arenas where prejudices can be extricated, charlatans be exposed and consensus and compromise reached. Our system of parliamentary power relies on combative debate, held in full view of all who care to watch, with each member’s name announced and recorded before their contribution is made. This is how argument should be conducted and has always been conducted. The combatants resting their cases upon their own shoulders, taking responsibility for what they say and defending their case from rebuttal.

We value this sort of discussion not so that the merit of arguments is judged upon the character of their proponents but rather to ensure

that due consideration is given. People are more likely to think before they speak if they know that their name and reputation will be attached to the view expressed. There are some limited cases where the full force of public scrutiny means anonymity may be the best option, but these do not include the ill-conceived, ill-mannered rantings of those who frequent these websites.

If you hide behind a veil of anonymity, then you can shout and bawl and accuse without consideration of the effects your words might have or, indeed, without consideration of the comments themselves. Anonymity is not an evil in itself; it can protect legal witnesses, newspaper sources or those who criticise tyrannies under fear of incarceration or death. This, though, does not equate to those who post on UK newspaper websites.

These alchemists of hate are not under threat of recrimination even if they publish libellous material or that which incites violence. We tolerate language, lies and accusations on the internet which would not be tolerated on posters, in speeches or during rallies. There is of course a problem of how to introduce protection against anonymous internet screeching without constricting arenas of debate so that they become exclusive, or havens of a one-track liberal consensus. The spectre of paternalism looms large in any such proposal.

Action is necessary however if we are to take public debate back into the realm of the responsible; re-asserting accountable opinion making and informed discussion. Letters to editors, public debates and (dare I say it) newspaper comment writing are all legitimate forms of expressing your opinion in an accountable way. Even forum based websites have ‘reputation’ functions, strict moderation and ‘three strike’ policies that mean users must consider what they post.

Newspapers’ online comment sections can also be improved if the paper insists on names, accountability for comments and enforces stricter moderation of unacceptable, discriminatory language or potentially libellous material. The age of megalomaniac, anonymous internet bile must come to an end if we are ever to make progress in our debates and stand up for those at the sharp end of public hatred: especially when they are children.

Pete Jefferys is TCS Comment editor and Secretary of Cambridge University Labour Club.