Attacks On Anonymity Conflate Anonymous Speech With Trollish Behavior

from the a-mistake dept

Every so often this sort of thing pops up where people suddenly think it's a good idea to "end anonymity" online. We've discussed this in the past, and it's always the same basic argument -- one that conflates anonymity with "bad things" that people say online. There are all sorts of problems with this, but it starts with this: anonymity also allows people to reveal all sorts of good things online as well and plenty of people say and do horrible things with their names attached. And yet... the arguments keep on coming. Here, for example, is law professor Danielle Keats Citron in the NY Times arguing that the First Amendment shouldn't protect trolls online, and the way to deal with it is to "revoke the privilege of anonymity:
Intermediaries — usually the websites where trolls post comments — can step in to revoke the privilege of anonymity, or even remove abusive speech that violates their community guidelines but when trolling turns into cyberharassment or cyberstalking, the law can and should intervene.
Meanwhile, a Washington Post article by Kevin Wallsten and Melinda Tarsi talks up their "research" which (the headline suggests) says we should do away with anonymous comments entirely. The reasoning? Their study showed that people liked websites less when they had anonymous comments.
To shed light on whether anonymous comments actually matter for how people feel towards the media, we conducted a survey experiment in which Internet users were exposed to varying amounts of media criticism in an anonymous comments section attached to a hypothetical news story from USA Today. Specifically, our subjects were randomly assigned to a “media praise” condition (where comments used positive adjectives to describe the high quality of the outlet’s reporting), a “media criticism” condition (where comments used negative adjectives to address the low quality of the outlet’s reporting), a “mixed” condition (where half of the comments were drawn from the “media praise” condition and half were drawn from the “media criticism” treatment) or a “no comments” condition (where the comments section was left empty). We then asked our participants to rate the overall news media and USA Today on a “feeling thermometer.”

Consistent with the concerns of the “no anonymity” movement, we found strong evidence that anonymous posts shape the attitudes of news audiences. Specifically, we found that Internet users became significantly more negative towards the news media and USA Today when exposed to a story with an anonymous comments section. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that this pattern of negativity held even when the anonymous comments praised the media’s reporting. Below is a graph showing the average rating of USA Today and the news media in each experimental condition:
Of course, that focuses just on a comment section in which the focus is on cheering on or complaining about the reporting. What about all of the useful conversations and discussions that are enabled because of the anonymity? That gets totally ignored. As we've noted over and over again in our weekly highlighting of the most insightful and funniest comments -- as voted on by the community here -- it's quite common to see anonymous comments come out on top. And that's because many of our commenters -- both anonymous and not -- often join in on the conversation, rather than just drop two cents about whether they like or dislike the article itself (which the study above presumes).

Thankfully, at least some are pushing back on this silly idea of banning anonymity. Gabriella Coleman has a great NY Times piece about the important values of anonymity and even how it enables those marginalized by society or victims of crimes to speak out where they otherwise wouldn't be able to do so:

But we should also consider what we would lose were we to ban, or even discourage, the use of anonymity on the Internet. Debates about trolls routinely conflate anonymity with incivility but a broader look at online activities reveals that public good can come when users can hide their identity.

For example, medical patients and mothers discuss sensitive issues (be they clinical or related to parenting) in pseudonymous forums, allowing for candid discussions of what might otherwise be stigmatizing subjects. Anonymous activists rely on the web for whistle-blowing or to speak truth to power without fear of retribution. And, in a strange twist, victims of hate crimes use anonymity to speak out as well: anonymity can empower those who seek consolation and justice to speak out against assailants enabled by the same processes.

Anonymous expression has been a foundation of our political culture since its inception, underwriting monumental declarations like the Federalist Papers. At its best, it puts the attention on the message, rather than the messenger.

Yes, some people abuse anonymity, but many use it wisely. And yes, some people are obnoxious online. But confusing the two things and assuming that anonymity automatically leads to obnoxious behavior is just wrong. We wouldn't be the site we are today if we didn't make it easy for anyone to comment, anonymously or not. The contributions in our community from people who choose to remain anonymous are often insightful, witty and educational. Are there some people who abuse the privilege? Sure. But focusing on the few bad players and wiping out a powerful tool because of it seems incredibly short sighted.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

    Trevor, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:05pm


    Yes, much of it is crazy and vile and annoying and nasty.

    But, there are MANY articles and posts where the comments are more interesting than the original post or story. I've seen many posts where deep conversations and discussions arise between anonymous commenters and a lot of these conversations would not occur if anonymity was banned.

    That's the cool thing about the First Amendment. It recognizes that there is going to be a lot of crap, but that the crap has to be allowed so that more people are allowed to or feel empowered to speak.

    Ben Franklin famously used pen names for various writings. If he were unable to do so, what would be have missed out on?


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    AricTheRed (profile), Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:08pm

    Not Just another slippery slope

    It seems to me that more people have been commenting here anon, since the Snowden revelations, especially if the comments are critical of the current intel regime/machine/industry.

    It would seem that supressing/eliminating anon commentary would have a chilling effect on all types of "free speech".

    Today if someone shouts something it in a crowd, it is anon speech even if you are #officergofuckyourself, while there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, it still seems that we have the reasonable expectation of anonymity.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Color Me Anonymous, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:09pm

    I Vote for Anonymity

    GIGO has been around since the beginning of computing, and applies to research as much as it does to computing. When you start with a flawed study, you end up with flawed results, and that appears to be the case here. Likely millions of people would not participate in discussions if comments were not anonymous, which clearly stifles free speech. Also, as the article notes, many of the anonymous comments advance the discussions in which they are made.

    I have been accused of being a troll, but "troll" is a relative term that often seems to be equated to a dissenting or controversial viewpoint. It is a short walk from accusing someone of being a troll to stifling of free speech.

    I vote for anonymity on the internet. There will always be jerks, in real life as well as in virtual life, and eliminating anonymity is not a cure.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Deputy Dickwad (profile), Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:15pm

    You are wrong! Citizen.

    I NEED these stupid web people to keep lists of all of you folks that need a little torturing.

    If the law of the land is no anonamous comments then those stupid internets companies cant claim ignorance when me or by brother Special Agent Dickwad come around to find out who has been spewing defamatory satements about by other brother-in-law Jim Ardis. They will have to go all IRSey hard-drive crashey insted, and my brother-in-law loves that lying to a federal agent charge, although I have to to my olde standby... refusing an order/obstruction of justice before I shoot you. :-(

    So suck tear gas, rubber bullets and flashbans kiddies. Shit is changing for the better!


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:18pm

    Lack of anonymity online does not stop people from being assholes. One only needs to take a lack at the comments section of a major news site. Your average septic tank has less human waste in it. Hell, some of the biggest trolls to post to techdirt made a point of signing their posts.

    In contrast, Wikipedia allows anyone to edit it, with nothing more than an IP address as a record. Something that's relatively easy to change. Heck, between home, work, school, and cell phone, most people probably have at least three IP addresses at any given time. Which with a little care could easily let them play three separate people online. Yet allowing anonymous editing has helped them build a pretty impressive information source, often based on contributions from people that can't be arsed to make an account.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymouse, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:21pm

    Look at the question

    This has nothing at all to do with preventing trolls in comments. It has everything to do with you...the product. A lack of anonymity online is a deluge of useful and profitable data for marketers of all stripes.

    Read that, it'll show you what they are really wanting when they decide to use (your favorite cause) to end online anonymity.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:25pm

    Sticks and stones may break my bones
    But words will never harm me.

    This is stuff we learned in the 3rd grade. Pity the anonymous trolls, don't fear them.

    The only ones who fear anonymous comments, are those in power. Politicians, dictators, etc. Look at Russia's new "registered blogger" law for proof.

    Danielle Keats Citron, is basically advocating for a "registered blogger" and "commentor" law in the US like Russia has.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    sorrykb (profile), Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:26pm

    I'm in favor of preserving anonymity for the sake of freedom of speech, but even if I wasn't....

    Have the opponents of anonymity spent time at sites that have switched commenting to require "real names"? If greater civility is their goal, they've failed.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:29pm

    Identifying and Dealing with Trolls

    So what are the various methods of identifying and dealing with trolls? As Color Me Anonymous points out, sometimes dissent is classified as 'troll' when it is merely dissent.

    But what about real trolls? Here, we can report them. If enough visitors report that post, it gets rolled up, but still view-able.

    Other sites control what posts show up. If they don't like the post, it doesn't get shown. A lot of work for the site owner.

    I don't go to reddit, or other like sites (my comments tend to be here) so I am unfamiliar with how other sites do it. Are there some preferred methods? Are there some ways to do it, say in steps or levels?

    Is there a way to take the annoyance out of trolls, and maintain anonymity? Other than like here, cause this is working.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:31pm

    Removing anonymity doesn't remove assholish behavior. Facebook and Twitter are full of idiotic jerks who have no problems posting their real names and/or faces, while Reddit and 4chan have their share of decent intellectuals who'd rather not bring any attention to their real life selves.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 4:51pm

    but when trolling turns into cyberharassment or cyberstalking
    Government shill spotted. NSA mooks are the only ones who cyberuse cyberwords cyberlike cyberthat.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Beta (profile), Aug 21st, 2014 @ 5:18pm

    control group

    The results of the experiment seem to indicate that people don't like sites with a low signal/noise ratio.

    If there are no comments, all you see is the news, the "content". If there are comments, you read them, hoping for something interesting, and find nothing. You've wasted your time. And it appears that this is a site frequented by people with nothing much to say. Monotonous praise and monotonous scorn are bad enough, but at least they indicate something. If they are mixed, then they indicate nothing; these sites get the lowest score.

    Why not try a more brave experiment? The Washington Post allows pseudonymous comments by registered readers. Suppose it allowed anonymous comments, but provided a filter for readers, to hide or reveal anonymous comments along with the threads that follow from them? Then Wallston and Tarski could see pretty clearly whether their own readers preferred pages that allow anonymity.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 5:23pm

    Re: Identifying and Dealing with Trolls

    I'm not sure there's an exact definition - but I've noticed that "trolls" go above and beyond simply making their opinions known - by reiterating them over and over, attacking anyone that has a likewise dissenting opinion, and basically being fucking morons.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    CK20XX (profile), Aug 21st, 2014 @ 5:40pm

    Most of the push against online anonymity is probably due to Johnathan Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (GIFT), which was formulated a whole decade ago and has been studied academically ever since.

    I personally would rather that online anonymity be a subject tackled by individual websites and services. It's probably not going to end though since even freaking Google discovered that it can't force people to use their real identities, so if the government decides to step in... it's probably going to be a case of why we can't have nice things.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Kronomex, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 6:00pm

    All that is happening would give nightmares to George Orwell's corpse. Governments and their corporate masters around the world are making Big Brother look positively democratic.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 6:24pm

    Trolling can be very constructive , I use routinely on unsuspecting users on my site , mostly to test the temperament of the mods I put in place, tolerance Is the first thing I look at , second Is the wit humor and wile that they sling back , and the realizing that nothing another user online ...that you don't really know says can hurt you , at all , The web needs to stick to the old schoolyard saying , I'm sure all of have heard time and time again ...stick and stones. shutting down anonymous voices Is bad for everyone, especially when everyone deserves privacy, and the freedom and ability to exorcise that privacy.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    charliebrown (profile), Aug 21st, 2014 @ 6:33pm

    Old Troll

    What gets me is that 15 years ago or so, most of these huffy puffy editorial writing types didn't know that a troll is called a troll when they say something nasty on the internet. "Trolls usually post on the internet" well, DUH, because before the internet it wasn't called trolling!


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 6:47pm

    Take the anonymity and watch how long it takes for me to drop commenting. I won't go to StumbleUpon because of the requirement that you be identified to comment. No need to post stuff here on it because that step is the deal breaker.

    Used to comment at Torrentfreak too. Only they went to Discus to handle their commenting and I dropped commenting there as well. I don't like datamining.

    I've never been one to abuse commenting. I try to at least add something that isn't spam and with few rare exceptions dealing with the trolls here, isn't total put down but rather something that might contribute to the conversation.

    I like the anonymity. Pull it and I will cease to comment here and that means eventually I will cease to care about the site, which in the end means I won't visit very much.

    I'm sure one person doesn't make a crowd for how much that means. Rest assured though, I will follow through with it simply because I enjoy being anonymous. Once in a while it's a PNA because spammers tend to use the same service I use to hide my IP but it's not because because I'm trolling, nor spamming, nor downloading. I simply value my anonymity and privacy.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 8:02pm


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Mark, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 8:28pm

    Spies and anonymity

    Should spies also be more forthright with their names and activities. Maybe they should have a duty of candor as well.

    You know who else should, members of Alcoholics Anonymous(AA). Those mother f*ckers need to reveal every sordid detail.
    Police informants and whistleblowers should also be outed.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Capt. Underpants, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 8:34pm

    Well, since Kevin Wallsten and Melinda Tarsi dislike anonymity then we all must get rid of it - because ... then people will magically like websites.

    People disliking websites is a very pressing problem that deserves immediate attention. In the absence of remediation untold damages may occur!!!


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 8:49pm

    Re: Look at the question

    Good point. I'm a boringly law-abiding citizen who browses in private mode behind a VPN and comments anonymously. Why? Because, in my view, the benefit I gain from attaching my speech to my identity does not outweigh the cost of giving that information to advertisers or the government. In this calculus, a law to strip away anonymity benefits someone besides myself. Following Cicero, its worth asking: "Cui bono?"


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 9:54pm

    If trolls are illegalized

    then only illegals will have trolls.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 10:16pm

    I don't understand this.

    "...the average rating that Internet users give to the media always suffers when anonymous comments are included alongside news reports."

    Is the sample supposed to be representative of all "internet users"?
    Is the "hypothetical" USA Today article supposed to represent all "news reports"?
    Are the (undisclosed, assumedly fake, somehow "anonymous") "anonymous comments" that were used supposed to represent all real "anonymous comments"?

    Am I missing something?


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Peter (profile), Aug 21st, 2014 @ 10:20pm

    The internet is a wild west at the moment, where anybody is free to shoot (sorry, sue) anybody else for no reason other than they feel like it, and they have a gun (lawyer at hand)

    Didn't like a product your bought at Amazon? Want to help others spending money at a restaurant with rude waiters? Better check if you can afford the lawsuit before posting a comment.

    Trolling may be a nuisance occasionally. Until we can protect commenters from malicious prosecution and other harassment, there are plenty of other options available to keep trolls in check without threatening the right to free speech.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Mr Big Content, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 11:16pm

    I Have Nothing Too Hide

    I dont see why we even need anonynymity on the Web. In my day, everyone knew who you where. You had to be a Man to speak up!


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 11:39pm

    "If you dont agree with me you are a troll"
    This is what some people really believe.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2014 @ 11:46pm

    Testing opinions

    Anonymity is absolutely vital. I rarely submit a comment to any site with my name on it, because quite often, what I am doing is subjecting an opinion I am testing out to outside scrutiny. (Yes, it could be taken as this is trolling, but I suppose that is just a gradation of civility rather than activity). For professional reasons, I may not want to be associated with these until I am comfortable, across a range of forums, that I have them thought through properly.

    Barring anonymity doesn't make me stick my name to the posts. It stops me posting the comments. This only leaves me with a circle of family and friends, who often share the same views, to test out the opinions on. All it does is slows down the speed I can test out something.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 12:17am

    Ummm how much research can they have done beyond it makes them feel ookie.

    Shall we just ignore everything we now know because of anonymous comments?

    I'm sorry that we all won't play along with your fantasy world where we all comment nicely on stories that very often are factually lacking, and call an asshole an asshole when needed.

    If you can't handle harsh language log off.
    Ooooh I'm being cyberbullied...
    Call me when they violate the law in the real world, in the meantime stop trying to behave like you have a greater right to not be offended than I have to tell you your an ignorant snot.

    All of these "smart" people are focused on the wrong things.
    Why focus on the comments and how it is said rather than if what they said is true?
    USA Today... not exactly hard hitting media. If they screw up a story for the 99th time, or skew it we shouldn't say anything?
    You get them to publish true and factual information, and perhaps the comments will improve.

    Some people drive like assholes, how has regulating that worked out? I got cut off 3 times today by idiots.
    Some people can't figure out shouting into there cell phone in public is rude, why not regulate that?
    Don't try and lump all anonymous comments into the same pile, or shall I pile your research in with the idiot who created the anti-vax movement with his "research".
    Paint everyone with a broad brush, you should make sure you didn't paint yourself into a corner.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Rekrul, Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 1:29am

    How exactly do these idiots propose to wipe out anonymity?

    If it's just sites requiring people to register, I'm sure you'd see a sudden increase in posts by Ben Dover, Hugh Jass, Chuck U. Farley, and Heywood Jablowme, among others.

    Should sites require someone to enter a credit card number and be charged $0.01 to verify them? What about people who don't have credit cards? What about prepaid cards that can be bought for cash?

    Should sites require people to send in a copy of the driver's license or give their social security number? Hello identity theft.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 2:53am


    Honestly, I couldn't figure out if the study was talking about "anonymity" in the sense that nobody could sign their posts, or if they were talking about "anonymity" where people could sign their posts if they felt like it, or if they were requiring "non-anonymous" people to sign their posts with real, verified names. Without methodology or actual data, their survey reads like just another puff piece.

    I'm just working from anecdotal evidence, but I feel like trolls are more likely to sign their posts than the average user. With true anonymity, nobody can tell if the new horrible poster is the same as the old horrible poster, and trolls want to be recognized.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 3:03am

    Re: I don't understand this.

    It was a silly, pseudo-scientific study performed by a couple of political scientists. You're not missing anything, because there's nothing there to miss.

    On the other hand, I could easily believe that reading all the comments below the average YouTube video would lower the average users' enjoyment of the video. For some videos, reading the comments would destroy the average users' faith in humanity. The real irony is that Google stopped allowing anonymous comments on YouTube a year or two ago. They hoped that this would help; it didn't.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 4:15am

    Re: and...

    When they're not doing that, they're drinking hard-cyber.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 5:20am

    Welp, I guess none of those trolls in the US Government have ever had anything critical to say thta may put their jobs at risk, eh?


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 7:20am

    Re: I Have Nothing Too Hide

    Perhaps you should hide the extra "o" in too...


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 7:55am


    This. The bottom line is that removing anonymity is impossible in actuality.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 9:20am

    Re: I Have Nothing Too Hide

    Is Mr Big Content your birth name , and does the rest of the world have to revolve around your personal views , no ones stopping you from using your real name , though I think you are sarcastically trolling.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    WTF?, Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 1:55pm

    I'll be happy to give you the sleeves off my vest!

    It's impossible to enforce a ban on anonymous commenting. Want a first and last name on my comment. Fine, I'll pick one out of the air. I'm still anonymous, as long as I say nothing so alarming as to justify subpoenaing my internet provider for my identity.

    Requiring a "normal" looking name to comment is an idle gesture. If it ever comes to that to keep the the anti-anonymity crowd happy, I'll provide it. I love it when adversaries are stupid.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    TestPilotDummy, Aug 22nd, 2014 @ 2:05pm

    Gun Control, Body Armor Control, Speech Control, Weather Control

    It's all about control. Removing your rights.

    Never say a lack of filters, moderating what you hate, and utter security incompetence, with a dose of lazy phuck as be the true problem, yet let a spammed out board (splog?) be the "calling card attempt" for others to lose rights.

    And again we have that UTOPIA shit. This isn't the starship enterprise, you don't just say, "Make it so." when you don't even understand the system's capabilities.

    (I know you and feinstank and other retards out there hiding behind this sorry story--praying preying it will get teeth)


    And you lazy webmasters that are crying about this, grow up.

    Go listen to what frank zappa says about words. Go into an angry crowd and tell me how your going to shut someone you can't see up. Oh that's right, you utopian psychopath's have to roll tanks on a CITY to do it!

    That about sums it up for me.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Seegras (profile), Aug 25th, 2014 @ 4:18am

    Anonymity is prerequisite for democracy

    I actually suspect anyone speaking out against anonymity to be an enemy of democracy.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 25th, 2014 @ 8:53am

    Re: Anonymity is prerequisite for democracy

    Thank you for this comment. I've been trying to figure out how to articulate my feelings about this -- and you did it for me.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Shin splints Mac and Cheese, Aug 30th, 2014 @ 3:36am

    I am just here for the comments

    I seriously read comments before the story quite often. I prefer them. More honesty and candidness in the comments than the news.

    That negative nancy study only beeches about anon comments but ignores named comments. Are they that stupid to have done such an incomplete study and then brag about it? That's like running half the race but declaring theirselves the winner. Idiocy.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Hide this ad »
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Chat
Hide this ad »
Recent Stories
Hide this ad »


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.