PERHAPS SICK of being the poster boy for Godwin’s Law, the Huffington Post plans to ban anonymous commenting. Beginning next month, users will have to register their identities before they comment, declares founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington, ending a long tradition (in Internet time, that means eight years) of unfettered reader participation.
It’s not an unexpected decision, but it comes with much cost. Discussions will be less robust, some information that should be made public will remain hidden, and the enemies of free speech will be handed an easy victory by those who should be its defenders.
Godwin’s Law is the only half-facetious observation of Internet guru Mike Godwin that, “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Whether it’s Nazis or something else, the broader point is that commentary in any online forum seems to veer towards the vicious or extreme. (Indeed, a contemporary equivalent of the two-decades-old Godwin’s Law might focus on Obama: No matter what the topic, sooner or later someone blames the president). Sometimes, it appears, there is no room for moderation on the Internet.
One can understand the position the Huffington Post finds itself in. It wants to offer users a rich and engaging environment, but instead discussions deteriorate into such vitriol that the tone actually inhibits participation by more civil commenters. Requiring commenters to register their real identities before attaching a screen name to their comments, runs the thinking, is one way to weed out the abusive posters or “trolls,” as they are called. BostonGlobe.com has a similar system, as newspaper subscribers have to log in before they can comment.
It’s not necessarily the only way, however. Many websites use systems of “likes” and “dislikes” to promote the more thoughtful comments toward the top of the forum, leaving the ravings of the trolls down below.
The Huffington Post is, of course, allowed to make its own rules, and users will still have some privacy. What is worrisome, however, is the rationale that Arianna Huffington offers for the change. “Freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they’re saying and who are not hiding behind anonymity,” she says.
That’s a dangerous and decidedly illiberal position, one at odds with the First Amendment and the history of free expression in this country.
The Internet did not invent anonymous commentary. The Federalist Papers, for example, were originally published under the pseudonym of “Publius.” Would Huffington have denied their authors — founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison — the right to make their arguments? One hopes not, and for good reason. Anonymity helps expose truth. It also gives some measure of power to the weak and the marginalized.
It is those who are on the inside of something, be it government, a corporation, or an institution, who are best positioned to know about wrongdoing. But many are reluctant or unable to bear the personal consequences of that exposure — retribution, humiliation, legal threats, job losses — and so they tell their stories without revealing their names. Reporters realize there are risks to this, including a heightened possibility a source may be lying. But still, some of the biggest stories in journalism were broken using anonymous sources. Remember Watergate and Deep Throat?
And even when it comes to everyday commentary, requiring registration means that fewer will participate and that those who do will guard their words. A victim of rape might want to describe her own experiences in response to a story on sexual harassment but, knowing that somewhere her personal information is attached to her comment, she’ll demur.
Free speech is a difficult proposition and the Internet, a grand experiment in communication, represents both its greatest opportunity and its greatest challenge. The trolls really are a problem, a creepy minority out to ruin things for everyone else. But Huffington’s response has the potential to be harmful as well.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org