Sunday, August 25, 2013

Anonymous Comments

I happened to catch a blurb on the news this morning regarding the decision that the Huffington Post (a well-known news aggregator site) will soon be disallowing anonymous comments on its site. I saw this and an attempt to justify this decision as a push to create a more civilized discourse from another point of view since this is nothing new to China-watchers. After all, authorities in China have pushed for similar legislation for all China-based sites in an attempt to crack down on rampant online dissent. And I was not at all surprised to subsequently find that Chinese media have picked up on this piece of news. While this piece by Xinhua (the China Daily) did not actively take sides (at least in English, my Chinese is not good enough to read that version and it would not be surprising to read there was a different version in Chinese), it should not be at all surprising to note that the article only referenced the "positive" benefits of registering all users who wish to leave comments.

The underlying message being promoted by the Huffington Post (HP) is that this will promote a more civilized conversation and less trolling with the oft-accompanying threats and other negative commentary that can derail conversations on the internet. And, on its surface, this is a well-known problem not just on the HP but almost anywhere on the net where people are allowed to post whatever they want with the belief that they are relatively anonymous. (It is also worth noting here that I have suggested previously here and here that the idea of true anonymity on the internet is a false one but that is an argument for another day.) It is a real problem but is stripping away that anonymity the right answer? And, if so, why is it the right answer for a US-based site but not in China? Should this perceived anonymity only be available in countries or sites that are run by totalitarian governments? Do we believe that civility is something that can only be achieved by unmasking those who only say things when they feel they won't be held accountable otherwise? And do we really believe that the US government is truly benevolent in comparison to other countries (I suspect there are more than a few people who would find that idea preposterous in light of recent revelations over the scope of spying on US citizens communications by the National Security Agency) in how it governs?

This is not to suggest that the HP is right or wrong in taking this move. Clearly they feel they are taking this move to make their site better for a majority of their users. But there are always two sides to every argument and it would be wise to see what the potential consequences of such a far-reaching decision may have to chill conversation that may otherwise not be possible if the ability to remain relatively anonymous are stripped away.