These days we want “transparency” in all institutions, even private ones. There’s one massive exception — the Internet. It is, we are told, a giant town hall. Indeed, it has millions of people speaking out in millions of online forums. But most of them are wearing the equivalent of paper bags over their heads. We know them only by their Internet “handles” — gotalife, runningwithscissors, stoptheplanet and myriad other inventive names.
[…] In any community in America, if Mr. anticrat424 refused to identify himself, he would be ignored and frozen out of the civic problem-solving process. But on the Internet, Mr. anticrat424 is continually elevated to the podium, where he can have his angriest thoughts amplified through cyberspace as often as he wishes. He can call people the vilest names and that hate-mongering, too, will be amplified for all the world to see.
You would think Web sites would want to keep the hate-mongers from taking over, but many sites are unwitting enablers.
Yeah… an unwitting enabler. That’s me.
Um… do you think “Tom” could be any more condescending?
What I am is a witting enabler. You think I like the garbage dump that is my typical comment thread? You think I don’t know that my policy of no-holds-barred invective and pseudonymity is routinely exploited by faceless trolls who view hijacking a thread as some sort of ideological victory? You think I’m a fucking idiot?
I do plan to eventually move to a registration system that might cut down some of the most ridiculously extravagant trolling, and a community moderation system that will clamp down on it further. But I defend the right of every member of the HA community — no matter how vile — to maintain their anonymity.
Why? Because if you think the pseudonymous trolls are ruthless in their public efforts to trivialize and discourage the speech of others, just imagine the acts of intimidation that go on privately.
In the four years since unwittingly becoming a somewhat public figure I have found myself the target of all types of threats and attacks. My “fans” have told me that when “The Sweep” comes, they’ll be the first at my door, and that they’ll be in the front row cheering when I finally “hang for my crimes.” I’ve been assured that I can keep all my “fancy words” but that “we own all the guns,” and that I’ll someday “get what [I] deserve” for my gun control advocacy.
I’ve received hate mail from Nazis and fundies and other anti-semites warning me to go back where I came from. (Philadelphia?) I’ve had people forward me tidbits of my personal information to make sure that I knew that they knew where I lived, where I banked, and how I spent my money, and have repeatedly found unexplained queries on my credit report. I’ve had a load of horse manure dumped on my sidewalk, the tabs repeatedly scraped off my car, and my websites targeted with God-knows-how-many denial of service attacks. I’ve been falsely (and anonymously) reported to police for soliciting sex from minors online.
Perhaps all this attention just fires up the persecution-complex sufferer in me, but the average citizen just isn’t willing to put up with this kind of shit. There’s a reason why people resort to intimidation and threats — it often works. How many people are willing to passionately and openly express their opinions in the comment thread of a dinky, local blog, knowing that some asshole might call your employer to complain?
A paranoid fantasy? Just take a gander over at our friends at (un)Sound Politics, where Stefan “allows” anonymous comments, but is quick to out anybody who strenuously and effectively refutes his rhetoric? God help the public employee who dares express a personal opinion from a government IP, let alone a whistle blower on the wrong side of the powers that be and/or a vindictive mob.
In an ideal world, it would not take courage to attach one’s real name to a post or a comment. But this isn’t an ideal world. The public town hall meetings that “Tom” mythologizes may indeed be a paragon of openness and transparency, but they can also make for a stifling atmosphere of group-think and political correctness, where participants are actively discouraged from truly speaking their minds for fear of being ostracized by their neighbors. There are communities where being openly gay or atheist or anti-war can cost you your livelihood, let alone your social standing. Should these despised minorities be denied the opportunity to engage in public discourse because “Tom” has determined that pseudonymity is uncivil?
It is not more civility that is needed in the public debate, but more honesty, and sometimes the most honest words are those penned under a nom de plume. From “Silence Dogood” to “Publius” to “Mr. X“, our nation has a proud history of pseudonymity in public discourse.
Perhaps it is the very anonymity of the Internet that makes it such a powerful forum in the first place?