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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Should we eliminate
in Saint John, New
in a campaign to
comments on the
Wolfe Chair in
Scienti;c and Technological Literacy
at McGill University,
is the author of
Spy: The Many
Faces of Anonymous (Verso, 2014).
WHENEVER I HEAR people discuss the elimination of any editorial practice,
one of the first cries in opposition is “Censorship!” It’s an easy retort. I tend
to agree with the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he said,
“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.” As a society, we need
the courage of our convictions.
We do, however, censor every day. We keep our “inside voice” in check, and
don’t always say exactly what we think, at least not out loud. We do this to avoid
conflict, to avoid hurting the feelings of others, to be polite—except, however,
online. Online, people abandon restraint, courtesy—not to mention grammar—
and civility. Why? Because it’s not “them” talking. It’s anonymous.
Some hide behind anonymity to say what they really think, no matter how
hurtful, rude or threatening. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that
people “demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought,
which they seldom use.” That is all the more true when they hide behind the shield
of anonymity. Why not? Who will know it’s you? You need no courage; you need
only the confidence of a keyboard and an attitude. It’s bereft of consequences.
But we live in a society of consequences. We have responsibility. We have
rules of civility that we embrace daily in order to live in harmony within our
community. Why, then, would we not have those same rules when we choose to
live in the global online community?
CBC, Radio-Canada, the Toronto Star and The Huffington Post have all
moved to end anonymous comments on their websites. They did so because
those comments reflected more a mob mentality than the considered thoughts
of reflective readers. It was less frequently commentary than it was blind vitriol.
Requiring commenters to own their comments isn’t censorship; it’s simply
challenging them to say—aloud—what they claim to believe. There’s nothing
stopping those same people from choosing to make the same rude, hurtful
comments they made before. All they need is the courage to make it. C
IN RECENT YEARS,;anonymous;online;comments;have developed a poor
reputation. Numerous editorials have called for their end. The worry: Allowing
internet users to hide their identity will breed more hateful and harmful
speech. The problem: The same anonymity used by bullies and harassers is
also relied on by ordinary people, citizens and activists to express controversial political opinions and share sensitive information to support each
other. While banning anonymity might curb some negative speech, it would
also lead to detrimental social costs.
Forcing everyone to reveal their real names would create a speech monoculture, marginalizing the oppressed, voiceless and powerless who routinely
rely on cloaking.;Today, as more of us conduct all of our affairs online, it is
imperative that anonymity remain a staple in our media diet. This does not
mean every online forum is well served by cloaking. Communities should be
empowered to decide whether anonymity serves them or not. Some organizations, including the BBC and;The Huffington Post, have banned;anonymous
speech, while others, like;The New York Times;and;Jezebel, still allow;anony-mous;commenting.
Prohibiting;anonymous;comments;en masse will also stifle the search
for innovative solutions that curtail harmful speech without sacrificing
anonymity. Sites like;Jezebel, for instance, minimize hateful speech with
moderating—forms of intervention that can be applied automatically with
technology or human judgment. These sorts of efforts, which strike a balance
between anonymity and control—and not a universal call to end;anony-mous;speech—deserve our support. C
Is technology making
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