Anonymity and Internet Trolls

Should blogs and other online forums ban anonymous comments?

Facebook’s Julie Zhuo takes to the NYT op-ed pages to make a familiar call:

Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

[…]

Content providers, social networking platforms and community sites must also do their part by rethinking the systems they have in place for user commentary so as to discourage — or disallow — anonymity. Reuters, for example, announced that it would start to block anonymous comments and require users to register with their names and e-mail addresses in an effort to curb “uncivil behavior.”

Some may argue that denying Internet users the ability to post anonymously is a breach of their privacy and freedom of expression. But until the age of the Internet, anonymity was a rare thing. When someone spoke in public, his audience would naturally be able to see who was talking.

Others point out that there’s no way to truly rid the Internet of anonymity. After all, names and e-mail addresses can be faked. And in any case many commenters write things that are rude or inflammatory under their real names.

But raising barriers to posting bad comments is still a smart first step. Well-designed commenting systems should also aim to highlight thoughtful and valuable opinions while letting trollish ones sink into oblivion.

Armando Llorens notes the irony that someone from Facebook, where some of the most vile cyber-bullying episodes have taken place despite lack of anonymity, is making this argument.   He figures the solution is simple:  “don’t read comments sections of blogs. Or only read them at blogs that take up one of Zhuo’s suggestions. It’s easy enough to avoid nastiness on the internet – don’t get involved.”

He also points to a three-year-old piece he wrote on the subject in The Guardian, arguing rather forcefully that the ability to write without fear of harassment is vital to the flow of free discussion.

I’d note, however, that Llorens was never truly anonymous online.  He has mostly written under pseudonyms, first as “Armando” and now as “Big Tent Democrat.”  While that’s not quite the same inhibitor to bad behavior as posting under his real name, it does create a reputation around those identities that it behooves him to protect.

I’ve toyed with the idea of a more formal moderation system for comments but it strikes me as more likely that it would be abused by people to vote down views they disagree with than those which are genuinely uncivil and trollish.  And the ratio of annoying comments to useful discussion is still heavily enough in favor of the latter that it’s not worth the risk.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Science & Technology,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brett says:

    I think the best way to keep the trolls and spammers out is if you have a required registration system to comment (with some questions designed to trick spam-bots), coupled with active moderation to cull the ones that get through and guide discussion.
    Almost every site out there with free comments gets hit by spammers (including obscure forums), and trolls are inevitable at any site with a large number of views.

  2. john personna says:

    Some of us are obviously “personnas” but the wider web is populated with a lot of just-Steves, just-Drews, just-Bretts, and so on.  I think those popular sites who have to cut them off lose quite a lot.

  3. Brett says:

    I have a couple of aliases on-line, although I usually use one of my names here (I won’t say whether “Brett” is my first name or not). It’s just too risky to have all your political opinions, everything you’ve ever said online, at the reach of a potential employer or someone who might use that info against you.
    Unless, of course, your job is to write and report on various issues that you talk about. It must be nice to be able to write all kinds of commentary in your own name without serious potential repercussions, James.
     

  4. I am not sure, apart from a really complex process, how a blog could guarantee that a person was not posted under a pseudonym.
    Further, I would argue that anonymity is more about people not knowing who you are in real life versus whether they know your real name.  In other words, if one is a person commenting using one’s own name but has a reasonable expectation that the persons reading the comment will ever meet or even see them, then they still feel anonymous.

  5. Ken says:

    I blog, and post comments, anonymously (though a couple of journalists have succeeded in identifying me and contacting me).  I do so mainly because (1) I don’t want the hassle of crazy people and assholes calling my office and bothering my secretary, (2) I want to be able to write openly on bad behavior in the criminal justice system without it hurting my clients, and (3) I have, on occasion, drawn angry responses from genuinely scary people, like a convicted rapist within driving distance of my house and a white supremacist recently on trial for threats.
     
    I completely support blogs and sites that won’t accept anonymous comments.  It’s their house, their rules.  But I also support people who want to participate in debates anonymously.

  6. john personna says:

    “It must be nice to be able to write all kinds of commentary in your own name without serious potential repercussions, James.”
     
    We’ll see how he fares in the Palin administration.
     
     

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    Using my real name serves as self discipline mechanism.  I believe if all were to do the same we see a more civil conversation and mutual respect.  It also serves as the price of admission to the public forum.  Anonymity creates free riders who want to say things without ever feeling the consequences.  We have a tradition of being able to face our accusers in this country and those who hide behind anonymity to attack others undermine the public forums they participate in.

  8. john personna says:

    Steve, it is not a “price of admission” until The Internet Bureau goes out to match every online account with a National Identity Card.  That is what Steven meant when he said “I am not sure, apart from a really complex process, how a blog could guarantee that a person was not posted under a pseudonym.”
     
    To put it simpler, if I were less honest and just posted as John East or John West, would you have all the same warm and fuzzies?
     

  9. James Joyner says:

    It must be nice to be able to write all kinds of commentary in your own name without serious potential repercussions, James.

    Oh, there’s no such thing. I’ve turned down jobs where my writing was going to be a problem and took my current position only after setting out in writing the nature of what I was doing here, how much time I’d spend doing it, and so forth.   And I’m sure there are plenty of jobs that I’m otherwise qualified for that I haven’t gotten or won’t get because of it.

    Regardless, I’ve chosen to write under my own name for reasons of both intellectual honesty and, frankly, ego.  Putting my byline on things I write serves to make me think twice and own what I say.  And I derive psychic value from being a named part of the discussion.

  10. Franklin says:

    And I derive psychic value from being a named part of the discussion.
     
    Psychic?

  11. just me says:

    I obviously post anonymously.  I probably wouldn’t mind posting under my real name or some portion of it, but I agree there really isn’t a way to know for sure if the guy whose name is John Smith really is John Smith or still posting anonymously with a common name rather than an obvious user type name.
     
    I do think there are a lot of crazy people out there, and posting under my own name might not make me cautious about what I say but cautious about where I post or whether I post.

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

     
    ***Psychic***
    “Some people also believe that psychic abilities can be activated or enhanced through the study and practice of various disciplines and techniques” lol, H/t wikipedia…….
     
     

  13. James Joyner says:

    @GA and @Franklin
    I knew you guys would make those jokes.
    But “psychic rewards” and variants are pretty common usage.

  14. john personna says:

    “I knew you guys would make those jokes.”
     
    meta joke
     

  15. matt says:

    They Guy Fawkes mask is improper for this article. The proper image would of been the official troll face.
    <a href=”http://tinypic.com?ref=20k0ae” target=”_blank”><img src=”http://i53.tinypic.com/20k0ae.jpg” border=”0″ alt=”Image and video hosting by TinyPic”></a>
    http://tinypic.com/r/20k0ae/7
     
    To me anonymity is about letting people be real beyond what they are in day to day life. Most if not all the people you know hide true parts of themselves because they fear rejection for their less popular ideas/actions. A truly anonymous commenting setup allows for a much more candid discussion and the potential for some truly beautiful human interactions… When people aren’t posting complete crap being trolls 🙁 4 chan is the theory of anonymity taken to the extreme..
     
     

  16. john personna says:

    While we’re fixing things matt, here is the correct way to build a troll detector:
     

    In the cold and mysterious wilderness of Norway, it pays to be ready for anything–especially heavy-walking trolls. The team at [nullohm] decided to prepare thoroughly for their trek into the woods to witness the Leonids meteor shower by putting together an Arduino-based “troll detector”.
     

    http://hackaday.com/2010/11/25/hopefully-detect-trolls-before-they-devour-you/

  17. John Burgess says:

    I use my full name generally. On some blogs, I’ll drop the surname, but only if it’s non-serious stuff.
     
    I do allow anonymity on my own blog, though, as nearly half my readers are Saudis. While not a police state, there can still be bad consequences for outspokenness. I also monitor comments tightly. I don’t allow racism or its conceptual neighbors, nor just out-and-out ranting. Name-calling will get a comment removed and possibly the commenter banned. I’ve loosened up on the vulgar language restrictions, though.

  18. Trumwill says:

    I used to blog and comment under my own name. I wrote a lot of stuff that I regret writing. I am thankful that my former blog is on Page 4 of a Google. Oddly, since taking on my pseudonym, I’ve actually become more temperate than I used to be.
     
    I think it’s important to note the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity. You can google Trumwill (or “Will Truman,” though you’ll get a lot of hits for Will & Grace – no relation) and see my history and appraise whether or not I am an honest broker. That’s harder to do with just “Bob” or “Mike”.
     
    If my blog ever made it big (which I never expect it to, since I generally avoid hot-button issues), I would probably institute some sort of registration process. I don’t care if I know your real name, but I want to avoid drive-by commenters and such. And I want the ability to cut trolls off at the knees.

  19. Trumwill says:

    Off-topic, but put me down as “against” the new commenting structure. It’s not WYSIWYG and I prefer to use my own HTML. Having HTML buttons is fine, though, if it accepts handcoding, too. I don’t understand why WordPress seems to lean so hard one way or the other.

  20. James Joyner says:

    Off-topic, but put me down as “against” the new commenting structure. It’s not WYSIWYG and I prefer to use my own HTML.

     
    I’ve got in a ticket to see if it can be salvaged.  I, for one, really like the ability to blockquote and whatnot by a mere click.  Oddly, it worked great on older versions of WordPress but, for some reason, WordPress 3.x seems to have a hard time with it.

  21. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***I knew you guys would make those jokes.But “psychic rewards” and variants are pretty common usage.***
    Ya. I knew what you was saying and was searching for a description to back you up. That one was cooler:)
     

  22. anjin-san says:

    > It also serves as the price of admission to the public forum.
     
    Says who? If you want to make up rules, start your own blog, and have at it.
     
    James – have to chime in, the commenting function has been terrible since the redesign.  Is the functionality available to you really this limited? Someone with my brain wiring really needs spell check and preview.

  23. sam says:

    “I’ve got in a ticket to see if it can be salvaged. I, for one, really like the ability to blockquote and whatnot by a mere click.  ”
     
    I registered a non-wysiwyg  complaint in another thread. I think the trick ( as far as that post went) may be how to space between paragraphs, i.e. use more than you think is necessary.
     
    (Funny mix of tenses in that last. Sorry.)
     
    “Someone with my brain wiring really needs spell check and preview.”
     
    Fortunately for me, Opera has a built-in spell checker. Although for some reason is alway flags the word ‘his’ — like it just did 🙂  (And yes, I am an Opera pimp. Check it out)

  24. Frank says:

    we should be required to wear name pages when going out in public, ones which also allow access to our age and demographics. This way, when I make a silly dry-humor remark at the grocery store, people can assess if I’m serious or not. This will greatly cut down on bad jokes in grocery lines, as I for one will fear what a bunch of morons at the grocery store might do with my name and address once they know that I tell bad jokes full of irony.

    Trolls have always existed, and any troll worth his, yes his as everyone knows there are no girls on the internets- his salt enlivens a discussion, by playing a bit of devils advocate with the jester thrown in for good measure.

    best way to fight the trolls: don’t get emotional; accept that you might sometimes have to put up with the irony of how some of your own cherished beliefs and arguments make for some good and sometimes subtly clever yet occasionally tacky jokes.

    Let me repeat: trolls have always existed; anon has always existed… riding on the elevator beside you, splitting a taxi uptown, and even eyeing you from behind that newspaper on your lunch break in the park. Don’t panic; you’re anon and you’re watching him too!

  25. Frank says:

    *Name badges*, damn you swype.

  26. matt says:

    Firefox also has a built in spell checker and whatever else you want/need via plugins..

  27. mannning says:

    My first consideration for using a pseudonym was to protect both my own anonimity and to keep dangerous people far from my family. After having a few telephone harassment episodes that involved my wife and daughters when I (foolishly) used my own name in posts, I have tried to keep these kinds of people at arm’s length.  Since I have strong opinions about certain groups, such as Jihadists, I could not address the problems they cause and keep my family safe from reprisals, without using a pseudonym line of defense, limited as it is.

  28. mannning says:

    I must admit that I am not fully aware of the scope of the term troll. Is it an off-subject post; a vulgar post; an inane post; a personal attack post; a boring post sans any merit; a traffic-attempt; an ad; or, perhaps some or all of the above? I have wondered what to classify a post that makes valid points and shows intelligence, but is surrounded by some of the aforementioned types of remarks.

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