ARIANNA HUFFINGTON was among the first Web impresarios to recognize the power of user-generated content — how news sites can be curators of an ongoing discussion. So it was a benchmark in the evolution of online commentary when, at a conference in Boston, she condemned anonymous "trolls" who post hateful comments.
"Trolls have become more and more aggressive and uglier," Huffington said. "I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they're saying and not hiding behind anonymity." Web denizens have long been divided on how to handle "unhelpful" commenters. Determining which comments are offensive involves the kind of subjective judgments that make many Internet believers shudder. But the fact remains: Many prolific commenters aren't seeking to be part of a dialogue; they simply want to choke off discussion with their own rants.
There are various ways to address this problem. Huffington has chosen one: Starting next month, readers of the Huffington Post will no longer be able to post comments anonymously. They can still use screen names, but they'll have to register their identities with Facebook before they can comment. Forcing commenters to identify themselves, even behind the scenes, should curb some of the most offensive comments. (BostonGlobe.com also registers the identity of its commenters.)
But Huffington's willingness to take on the trolls is more important than whatever method she uses to police her site. Hateful comments can drive out the more serious ones; it's a form of online bullying that would never be tolerated in, say, an open town meeting. As Huffington has long noted, the Web has endless potential for promoting dialogue. And it can be a transformative vehicle for free speech. But maintaining a free flow of information sometimes means defending against those who would interrupt it for their own purposes. Huffington's way isn't the only one, but finding an effective balance between promoting conversation and ensuring a welcoming environment is a worthy goal.