December 17, 2018

Ending anonymity

Originally Published in: The Nation

Writer: Sadia Gardezi

Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies) an Internet maxim that asserts that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1”, i.e. if an online discussion (regardless of topic) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or his deeds. An American attorney came up with the adage in 1990, and framed as a memetic tool to reduce the incidence of inappropriate hyperbolic comparisons. Godwin wrote about the “law” that “although deliberately framed as if it was a law of nature or of mathematics its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”

In the age of the Internet we know full well about the hyperbole that is found in comments sections of articles, or anonymous twitter accounts that often hound journalists and political figures. Any Pakistan columnist who has ever written about Indian politics, in fact only touched even touched lightly on and issue of India (or even of local controversy), has been attacked by anonymous comments from across the border. These comments range from open abuses about religion or nationally, to long-winded nonsensical arguments that essentially promote the right in India, or promote the commenter’s image of his egotistical self. Though there are many trolls of local fame as well, the frequency and focus that the Indian troll has in Pakistani media points to some form of an organised effort. This scary suspicion aside, there is an argument to be made for eliminating anonymity on the Internet in comment sections.

One can support the right to be anonymous, as a way for those belonging to marginal communities to have a voice. How else can someone who is of a minority sect, of a non-hetronormative sexual orientation, or even a vocal feminist, survive in a society that sees them in good-evil binaries if not for Internet anonymity? Yet, the space of the Internet, just like physical spaces, gives those who already have safe physical forums, more space to vent and create content in such quantities that minority voice are lost.

The Internet cannot be censored and should not be censored, as much as status quo groups would like, whether they be the state or religious organisations. And in the same principle, neither should the trolls. I personally want to hear the trolls, in the same way that I want to hear everything that goes on in Donald Trump’s head. The more I know of someone who hates me, who has opposing views, and dangerous views, the better I can protect myself and my community against their venom. Let the trolls in the comments sections complain and harp on about Zionist conspiracies and women who have no “ghairat”- but, would it not be great to know who that actual person was who had the temperament to hurl abuse at a writer or activist, without hiding behind the protection of anonymity.

The idea that anonymity can breed negativity is not new and precedes the rise of the Internet as the number one forum for public debate and dissent. Journalists and writers, when they are tackling sensitive issues, are trying to produce knowledge and generate debate. They may sometimes be ignorant, they may sometimes produce work that is propaganda or lack quality, but they produce content from their name and can thus we held responsible for their words. The writer puts him/herself in the direct line of public criticism. With the hate that is discharged on the Internet, voicing a radical idea or a dissenting opinion has become increasingly dangerous. We can either let people abuse public figures on social media (public in the sense of not being anonymous), or we can expose the trolls and name and shame them. It is time for news sites to stop allowing anonymous online comments.

Anonymous comments exert a strong influence over Internet users. The response to being bullied by an anonymous troll online is invariably to either to pull back from one’s cause and stay silent, or go anonymous too and type back abuses. Anonymity allows for cyber bullying that produces low self-esteem and feelings of alienation in its victims. The influence of the abusive troll goes deeper than that. In a small social experiment in 2014, The Washington Post found that Internet users became significantly more negative towards the news media when exposed to a story with an anonymous comments section, rather that when presented with a story without a comments section. This is not to suggest the removal of a comments section of course. User opinion is essential to be critical of the news. But the removal of anonymity may remove the hyperbole and abuse from the comments, leading to, hopefully, a more civil debate that is palatable to most sensibilities.

Comment moderation can be useful for controlling abuse, but it is expensive and time-consuming. Many of the sites that have closed comment sections have tried moderation but found it too burdensome or costly.

In 2012, Buzzfeed’s John Herrman described YouTube’s anonymous comments section as “the room with the million monkeys and the million typewriters, but they haven’t even gotten half-way though Hamlet yet because they’re too busy pitching feces at one another.” Isn’t it time we did something to stop this waste of energy?

Note: The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at Oxford University and is former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation. She tweets at @saadiagardezi

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