Trolls Don't Need To Be Anonymous, And Not All Anonymous People Are Trolls

from the setting-the-record-straight dept

Julian Sanchez points us to the latest in a series of ridiculously uninformed editorials whining about the evils of anonymity online. This one is by Gayle Falkenthal in the Washington Times. The premise, apparently, is that anonymity only made sense in the past, when the internet was “immature.”

When the Internet was new, its nature bred the protective philosophy of embracing anonymity as a counterweight to the potential for sacrificing some of your personal privacy to participate.

The Internet has matured. Anonymity has become counterproductive and even damaging. If you?re willing to stand up and render a public opinion, you should reveal your identity. The time has come to limit the ability of people to remain anonymous.

That first sentence makes no sense. Anonymity didn’t just spring up because of the internet. And it had nothing to do with being a “counterweight to the potential for sacrificing some of your personal privacy to participate.” That’s someone making up history. As for anonymity being counterproductive? I think we can go with a big, fat [citation needed] and move on. And, by moving on, I mean moving on to more broad brush stereotypes that have little basis in reality:

Early adopters were iconoclasts, rule breakers and social misfits. Nerds targeted in the real world by bullies could push back without facing any personal risk. Anonymity plus anger bred boldness in the form of bad behavior. And so, the Troll was born.

This bugs me, because it’s been discussed time and time again. We’ve pointed out that some of our most trollish commenters are not anonymous, while some of our best commenters are anonymous. Can trollish commenters be anonymous? Yes. Does that mean anonymity is at fault? No.

Anonymous commenting should become a thing of the past. Anonymity allows trolls to breed. Let?s admit it, chalk it up to being a good idea that failed, and end the practice.

It’s only failed if you have a bad community, don’t engage with your community and let the trolls take over. In our experience, anonymity has made it easier for lots of people to counteract trollish comments, provide facts and data, and to keep our comments vibrant and interesting.

Those arguing for anonymity claim that free speech will be squelched because individuals might fear reprisals at work or among friends and family when their personal opinions are made public. Some speech doesn?t deserve a forum. Anonymity creates real and lasting harm when people are hit with false accusations and name-calling attacks. There is no way to tell if a damning restaurant review is written by a competitor or disgruntled employee.

That’s not an issue of anonymity. If people are hit with false accusations, there are defamation laws on the books to deal with it. If there’s a damning restaurant review written by a competitor or a disgruntled employee, there are mechanisms to deal with that (such as lots more good reviews from actual customers).

When our nation was being formed, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin stood behind their incendiary, treasonous views in public even at the risk of being hanged for what they said.

I was about to point out that Thomas Paine’s big contribution to the public discourse was Common Sense which was published anonymously, but I skipped ahead to the end where Falkenthal tells us that herself:

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anonymity. If you want to be anonymous, create your own blog and become the modern version of a Colonial pamphleteer. Some high quality pamphlets were written anonymously, like Thomas Paine?s Common Sense, but most went into the trashcan of history. Just like those long forgotten pamphleteers, modern anonymous blogsites full of insults and rants will not long be remembered.

So, uh, wait. Which is it? Is it that Thomas Paine stood behind his incendiary treasonous views, or that he published them anonymously. It appears that even Falkenthal is confused. Furthermore, the last two sentences appears to undermine her entire argument. If these anonymous comments are just going into the trashcan of history and “will not long be remembered,” then why do we need to ban them?

It seems like her argument is that anonymous speech is evil because it’s mean and doubly horrible because no one pays attention to it. Honestly, her column — with her name on it — seems a lot more troll-like than an awful lot of “anonymous” comments we see these days.

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Comments on “Trolls Don't Need To Be Anonymous, And Not All Anonymous People Are Trolls”

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The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Anonymity creates real and lasting harm when people are hit with false accusations and name-calling attacks.”

No, that’s what Hollywood is doing right now, with “law firms” doing the heavy lifting.

“Better that fewer comments of higher quality are published, and the opinions given more weight accordingly. One dose of invective can poison many reasonable arguments.”

So can parroting bullshit views, like ‘Without copyright, art wouldn’t be created’ or ‘The Nazis were groundbreakers in the field of war’.

“The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anonymity.”

Not necessarily. The largest part of the question is, does the capacity to be anonymous comprise an aspect of free speech? I would argue that it does, especially in the exposing of wrongdoing.

If you absolutely had to reveal your name in public to blow the whistle, as it were, how long do you think it would be before the person caught some backlash?

I choose not to reveal my name on account of I’m a private person and quite, quite insane. I would like to spring that one on future employers, thank you very much.

Scooters (profile) says:

Re: You Wilde man!!

You beat me to the punch! The quote holds so many truths, it’s impossible to see how anyone can dispute it.

One of the reasons I stopped using my real name was due to the increasing actions of many to not snoop on what I have to say, but where I go to visit online.

Not that I’m ashamed of where I go, but ignorance is so rampant, it’ll be hard for people to understand I don’t visit a cartoon site to see Marge naked (but this is all they know cartoons online to be).

I’ve even adapted a method to not use the same profile name at all the websites I visit just so I can claim “Yes, I’m Scooters on TD.” but the username being so common, there’s no way I’m “scooters” everywhere.

And yes, I will most assuredly speak the truth (as I see it) and “troll” (which by its very definition is an opposition of any argument).

Then again, meet me in real life and I’m the same way. 😐

John Doe says:

Re: Re: You Wilde man!!

I use to post under my real name on many sites; now I use an alias on some. Mostly because the internet, like the elephant, never forgets. Maybe I post something stupid that I shouldn’t and regret later. Maybe I post something I believe but eventually come to believe something else. The stuff I posted can and will be used against me later even though I may be remorseful or have had a change of heart. So I will remain anonymous when I feel like it.

Oh, and if you think you have a common name, it can’t get more common than mine. :>P

davebarnes (profile) says:

“Nerds targeted in the real world by bullies could push back…And so, the Troll was born.”

I am a nerd. I was born a nerd and I was never bullied for being a nerd.
I troll because I can.
I enjoy starting a word fight, but it has nothing to do with being bullied.
Trolling is similar to poking a stick into a hornets’ nest (which I did, once) to see what will happen.
Trolling is fun.

BTW. The Washington Times: a newspaper written by troglodyte for the ignorant lumpen proles.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think it’s true that some people (maybe even most people) feel comfortable saying things anonymously that they might not want permanently attached to themselves.

Sometimes that has good effects (e.g., whistleblowers can blow whistles), and sometimes that has bad effects (e.g., people are generally more comfortable being rude and nasty).

Anonymous Coward says:

Reasons for anonymity

You know, maybe someone who posts anonymously or, I dunno, HOSTS AN ANONYMOUS BLOG, does it because she doesn’t want (or need) the personal acknowledgment that comes from being known on Teh Interwebs? MAYBE, it’s just as simple as the fact that she has something to say and wants a place to say it without the messenger getting in the way of the message? Maybe she has kids and they are her world and if she one day exercised poor judgment and said something stoopid and couldn’t take it back, it might somehow negatively affect her ability to make a living?

I suppose anonymity *could* be taken wrong…Maybe some people hide behind that cloak in an effort to be vicious and spiteful and inauthentic. You don’t need the internet for that, why do you think robbers rob places more often under the cover of darkness? I just think that more often than not people just want to say something and move on.

Or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that we get tired of filling out name, rank, and serial number in those little form field boxes on web pages.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s the same old argument in new clothes. This is about control, pure and simple. And while I’m not one for outlandish conspiracy theories, there has been such a concerted effort to attack basic liberties is this nation, that I’m starting to doubt my beliefs about some of them.

Gun’s don’t kill people. People kill people.
Anonymous commenters don’t troll. Trolls troll.

Anonymous Coward says:


“Some speech doesn?t deserve a forum.”

All speech deserves a forum!

“When our nation was being formed, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin stood behind their incendiary, treasonous views in public even at the risk of being hanged for what they said.”

I guess Gayle Falkenthal forgot about Benjamin Franklin writing as Silence Dogood. Maybe she should study a little more history before continuing to espouse such nonsensical ideas.

And lastly, is the Washington Times going to stop using anonymous sources?

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Anonymity

I was wondering when I’d see a comment about this. Anonymity can be used for trolling, threatening, criminal activities… But it may also protect sources and allow ppl to express themselves online without suffering the consequences (China dissidents, dictatorial countries critics etc etc etc).

She is completely clueless. A troll if you wish but she isn’t trolling on purpose. Yeah right…

Aaron T (profile) says:

Re: Anonymity

Actually Franklin used numerous pseudonyms through out his life. Some were well known to be Franklin others were done anonymously. A number of the writings would probably fall under the “troll” category as he often enjoyed taking shots at his competition in an effort to make fun of them, etc.

Frankly, I don’t think Falkenthal could of picked two worse examples to backup the claim that anonymity is bad.

John Doe says:

This would be me

while some of our best commenters are anonymous

Having made the Sunday list 2 of the last 3 weeks, I prove this point. 😉

Furthermore, the last two sentences appears to undermine her entire argument.

This happens all the time to those who don’t understand what they are talking about, make unsupported arguments or are lying. They paint themselves into a corner and contradict themselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Those arguing for anonymity claim that free speech will be squelched because individuals might fear reprisals at work or among friends and family when their personal opinions are made public. Some speech doesn?t deserve a forum.”

Who are you to determine what speech deserves or doesn’t deserve a forum? The determination of what speech doesn’t deserve a forum puts a limit on free speech.

and sure, some speech doesn’t deserve a forum. Yelling fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire deserves no forum. But such speech can happen without anonymity.

The determining factor of what speech deserves a forum vs what speech doesn’t isn’t’ anonymity. Some anonymous speech deserves a forum. Some non-anonymous speech does not. And vice versa. To ban all anonymous speech because some may not deserve a forum doesn’t solve anything.

“The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anonymity.”

The first amendment says

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”

When the government is used to create laws that prevent anonymity and those laws effectively deter speech that you think ‘doesn’t deserve a forum’ then congress is creating laws that effectively abridge free speech.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I was once in a theatre where somebody screamed such a thing, nobody cared, nothing happened, people just took a look around and saw no fire and move on, so I don’t understand why that is a problem at all.

I believe that is the result of a culture that is so afraid of bad things that they start to criminalize everything trying to satiate their need for a painless existence which of course is damaging, pain is something that keeps us all sharp, it alert us of dangers and teaches us to avoid certain situations.

Hedonistic people in general will not agree with that and will try everything in their power to make the pain go away.

Why would anyone panic if somebody screamed fire on a theatre if there were no alarms, no staff running about or any other signs of danger?

Bad things happen when people panic, the solution to that problem is people learning not to panic, not trying to make all the panic triggers disappear it creates, because in that case it creates a community that doesn’t know how to cope with stressful situations and that is bad in my opinion.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why would anyone panic if somebody screamed fire on a theatre if there were no alarms, no staff running about or any other signs of danger?

Well, it’s just a cliche now, and an outdated one at that. I don’t use the phrase because of that. It is, however, convenient shorthand for the nub of the problem: there can be speech which causes immediate threat to the life and limb of innocent people, and therefore there are corner cases where speech should be restrained.

The phrase used to have a powerful punch because it pointed out a real problem in days gone by. In the olden days (before movies — we’re talking live theater), they used arc lamps for lighting. These burn really, really hot and it was not rare for them to light something afire and for theaters to burn down and lots of people to die.

People were very wary of theaters for this reason and many advertised fire safety as their prime selling point. Audiences were on edge about it. If you shouted fire in them, a panic was almost sure to ensue.

Nowadays, not so much.

Cowardly Anon says:

I feel that by forcing everyone to sign up and provide real names to participate in a discussion takes away from the discussion. I can honestly say that I can’t be arsed to sign up to every site that I read, or every site I care to post comments to. Even here on TechDirt, which I read and post daily too, I haven’t signed up b/c I’m lazy. (I did look at the sign-up form on day and went ‘meh’).

I’m lazy b/c I don’t want hundreds of usernames and passwords out there for the odd chance when I want to post a comment. I don’t want to create the same username/password combo as that’ isn’t secure.

So, not only does taking away anonymity take away ‘trolls’ it takes away people who don’t want yet another user name and password.

But, as Mike has pointed out, making people user a name doesn’t get rid of trolls. If I tell you my name is Tiffany Marie, how do you know if I’m telling the truth or not? How does anyone know if the any of the information that is given in that stupid sign-up form is real? You don’t.

Requiring names just adds an extra step to making a mask. And you know what? If trolls who are in it for the lolz see that they can stir up a lot of shit in your comments…they will make an account.

So in the end, requiring names doesn’t do anything but stop the lazy. Perhaps that person could have shared an interesting view point.

As I said to my mother the other day when she was shocked at something someone did online, ‘The internet didn’t create jerks. They have existed long before the internet, and will exist long after it. The internet just gives them a new playground.’

Connor Sinclair (profile) says:

...not long remembered.

While personally, I believe that if you feel the need to say something then you ought to own up to it, that does not that I have a right to force that belief on everyone.

On April 12, 2002 – Jonathan Turley (a nationally recognized legal scholar) wrote

“Anonymous writing was employed by the political figures who first articulated the foundations for the American republic. In the Federalist Papers and other publications, contemporary readers could only theorize on the true identity of ?Brutus,? ?Publius,? ?Cato,? ?Centinel,? ?The Federal Farmer,? and ?Junius.? The decision of individuals like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison to write under assumed names was not viewed in the least odd or suspicious at the time. Rather, the anonymous voice in politics was viewed as an honored practice.”

It seems to me that if our founding fathers found that the use of anonymity to be of such importance and that it was viewed as an honored practice, then why argue about it now unless you are willing to say that these men were cowards and failures.

The point is to open a dialogue, not to stifle it. And if you are really interested in what people have to say, then putting up road blocks to stifle it should be the last thing you want. In the end, what is more important, a persons name or the words they at to the discussion.

Yes, this allows for a people to abuse it. However, you cannot have freedom without the risk of abuse and more often than not, those who abuse it are typically ignored anyways. Regardless of how much you try to stop them, haters will always find a way to spew their venom. There really is no way of stopping it.

Those that fear this type of discourse are typically those that are afraid of the truth.

btrussell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: ...not long remembered.

I think FUD may have taken over, but next to that, “[citation needed]” is the most common post I see here.

In the context of “A quoting of an authoritative source for substantiation.”

An ac comment holds no weight. So I would say you need a name to make the words more than just words. Not just any name either.

lfroen (profile) says:

Free speech need not be anonymous

Since when “free speech” meaning “saying anonymously any crap I want without consequences”?

Since dawn of humanity speech (free or not) always come from known, specific person. Anonymous complains to authorities were always sign of _despotic_ regime, not open one. Even in communist USSR anonymous complains were ignored.

Wanna be revolutionist? Pacifist? Terrorist? Be my guest, but bear consequences in mind.

By chance, due to technical issues, IP address can’t be assigned to person. That’s temporal. Next version of IP, (IPv6) will have enough addresses for anyone, so address could be permanently assigned to subscriber, similarly to phone number.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Free speech need not be anonymous

You know what is not infinite?

Money, companies will still use the same techniques that they use today because it is cheaper to buy less IP’s and share them among a lot of customers in a pool.

Also you many not be aware that there are already anonymous network overlays already in use today, so I find your comment misplaced, that is to say rubbish.

If anonymity was something so bad it wouldn’t have endured millennia.

That is not something you can get rid off, because if you try people will go to places where they can do it and you sheep will fallow because business cannot do business where there is no people.

Prisoner 201 says:

Re: Free speech need not be anonymous

Free speech means exactly saying any crap you want.

The nice things that everything agree is good does not need a First Amendment to protect it.

It is the speech that annoys, angers, insults or offends that needs protection. Remember, all that is subjective. What I think is allright might cause you to flip out, and vice versa [1].

Further, if we start implementing laws forbidding anonymity, tracking who says what, where are we then when our previously so “open” regime starts leaning towards despotism?

Will you then be willing to be the first to “bear the consequences” in protest? Most certainly to die, perhaps to inspire those who come after. Perhaps die in vain. Would you really? What about your wife and kids? Would you let them bear the consequences of your actions?

Very few would. Which is why despots of all time want to keep tabs on who says what. Its the holy grail of tyranny.

And lastly, for your “dawn of humanity” argument – shall we also live in caves, dress in animal skins and generally die horribly a lot? That has been humanitys way since before we discovered fire. Check your iPad at the cave entrance.

That something has been done for a long time does not automatically make it right, or desireable.

No, if you want to get rid off assholes online, get rid of them before they get online – create a society that fosters happy, kind and sympathetic people, who do not need to lash out.

But thats a lot of work. Complaining about anonymity is easy.

[1] See any religion, sport, sexual orientation, sexual practice, ideology etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Free speech need not be anonymous

Since dawn of humanity speech (free or not) always come from known, specific person.

This is true, so long as we don’t count Silence Dogood; Richard Bachman; Clive Hamilton; George Orwell; Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; Ibn Warraq; Deep Throat; and Publius to only mention a very very few. In fact, during the Medieval period, it was common to write anonymously.

But don’t let facts get in the way of your argument.

Anonymous Coward says:


While I post anonymously, I do so because I am not looking for credit or brownie points. Just yesterday I was taken to task for:

“Why are you posting as an AC? You lose creditably fast doing that.”

My response was:

“The ideas stand by themselves. Not looking for credit.”

But I also feel a bit of responsibility. I put forth an idea, and posting anonymously sort of relieves me of responding to comments and/or criticisms, even though I solicited those comments and/or criticisms. I want to respond, and will, but some anonymous cowards take no responsibility what so ever.

Pseudonymous says:

The most disturbing part of the Times piece...

Newspapers across the country including Boston Globe, Buffalo News, Des Moines Register, Las Vegas Sun, Raleigh News & Observer, San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Reuters news service no longer allow anonymous comments online. They are finally ready to take action because advertisers are speaking up. They don?t like buying space when their products might appear next to incendiary and even offensive material in the form of comment pages.

There will be no choice in this matter, they’ve already met and decided this en masse.

AR (profile) says:

Intellectually dishonest from the first sentence

“When the Internet was new, its nature bred the protective philosophy of embracing anonymity as a counterweight to the potential for sacrificing some of your personal privacy to participate.”

I think she also forgot that newspapers, magazines. ect (used to) do the exact same thing with “letter to the editor” and even articals (sources). People used anonymity to complain about, inform others of, or just comment on local issues and didnt want the backlash from the ones deemed at fault or their supporters.

The internet didnt “breed” this. Its been around longer than she has. Her starting off her article with this intellectually dishonest statement just shows how the entire article should be disregarded as a culmination of false statements. It also shows how she has absolutely no credibility as an “editorial” writer. The people in charge should also be scrutinized for their allowing such “editorials” to be published under their name. Their allowing this brings into question their credibility to convey “truth in reporting”.

So with this in mind My opinion is, why bother reading anything she writes and more importantly, anything published by The Washington Times.

Paul Keating (profile) says:

1 does not beget the other

So, I have the “right” to shout from a crowd, public morals are now getting to the point where I “should not” is being translated into “no longer permitted”. And the reason seems to be that what I shout is most often not worth remembering?

Rules my mother taught me:
1. You have the right to speak your mind
2. You may not always want to follow rule #1
3. The difference between the 2 is called maturity.

And, if the “vast majority” of anonymous public comments are (unlike those of Mr. Payne) destined for the trash heap, what exactly is the worry here? Perhaps in that nanosecond between see and toss there is a brief but obviously fleeting believe that the commenter (or the commentee) is an asshole?

Is this how we are defining “harm” in our society? Have we reduced ourselves to the level where we treat each insult as important?

I think someone should teach this person the sticks and stones song (thought it is probably result in his being sued if he sang it).

Renee Marie Jones says:

Anonymous speech

The “ban anonymous speech” crowd actually go much, much further than banning anonymous speech. They demand, like Google+, that each person use their one, true, official name exactly as written on their driver’s license.

Well, a lot of us, like me, don’t use names that *exactly* match our driver’s license. We don’t go by them day to day, and everybody knows us by this “nickname” or whatever you want to call it. The “ban anonymous speech” crowd also wants to ban nicknames! This is not about trolls, it is about affixing a permanent label to people that they can never change and escape … primarily to assist in tracking them and following their economic habits and generally profiting from that.

jack says:


the artical i just read on anonimity was spot on.people in general are afraid to voice there opinions,reveal how they voted etc. out of fear of reprisals.We must all face the ugly truths that many people are ignorant,homicidal,and barbaric,and havent advanced much up the evolutionary ladder.great artical and would love the opportunity to comment civilly on your forum.

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