Internet trolls, anonymity and The First Amendment

You do not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to remain anonymous. Time for online trolls to man up or shut up. Photo: Scott Hancock/Fotalia

SAN DIEGO, September 26, 2011 – 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.

In the early days of the experiment called America, the right to send in an anonymous letter to the editor was considered a hallmark of the constitutional right to free speech. Opinions under pseudonyms were common. Beginning in the Cold War era, newspaper editors developed a dislike for them because individuals could spew any sort of unfounded opinion without consequences and without backing an opinion up with any hard facts.

By the 1970s, editors started insisting that people identify themselves if they wanted the privilege of stating their views in a public forum. By 2000, most newspapers refused to accept anonymous letters to the editor in all but a few special cases.

When traditional newspapers started publishing online, they bumped up against established online rules of engagement. In their zeal to embrace this new model of information dissemination, editors once again accepted anonymous comments. In many cases they naively thought it would foster a positive sense of community and encourage greater reader engagement by allowing the ability to comment on virtually any news article.

Readers engaged, all right. 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.

Internet trolls are not harmless toys.

Internet trolls are not charming little toys. They can do a lot of harm. Credit: K. Fawcett

The Urban Dictionary added the definition of Troll in this context back in 2002 as “One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a news group or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”

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.

News organizations should be the first to insist people reveal their identities in exchange for the privilege of reaching a large audience under their brand banner. Right behind them should be review-based websites that allow people to post anonymous reviews and recommendations.

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. 

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.

So when did Americans become so timid about expressing themselves? Americans used to be known for endless courage in stating their views and being forthright to a fault. They would stand up for their beliefs. Now everyone wants to hide behind their cybermama’s skirt. Man up, trolls.

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. 

Many newspapers have decided to use Facebook as a commenting system since most people on Facebook use their real name and often a photo of themselves. Others give priority to comments where the writer reveals his or her identity voluntarily. Still others are charging a fee for the ability to comment on stories. A few have decided they will eliminate the ability to comment at all.

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.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anonymity on someone else’s website. If you want to be anonymous, create your own blog and become the modern version of a Colonial pamphleteer. Some high quality pamphlets were originally written anonymously, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (although he later chose to out himself), 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.

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.

Copyright © 2011 by Falcon Valley Group





This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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