The End of Anonymous Attacks Is Not Censorship

jeffrey-weiss

Jeffrey Weiss

Correspondent
Posted:
05/27/10
Here's a free lesson for any of our commenters who want to squall about the new sign-your-name (or at least your AOL or AIM screen name) policy being launched today by Politics Daily, along with similar changes at many other major websites: Electing not to publish attacks is not censorship. Nor does it mean the end of effective and interesting discussion; on the contrary.

I've always thought of the development of the Internet as being a lot like the European settlement of North America. First come risk-loving explorers who aren't even sure there's anything to be explored. Followed by the first wave of would-be exploiters out for the quick buck (who mostly get et by bears or fall down waterfalls). And the hunter-trappers who blaze the first trails and thrive by ignoring old rules and creating new ones.

I figured we were well into the "farming community" stage maybe five years ago, with civilization being imposed in pockets. But much of the 'Net has remained a Wild West scene. And no place has been more wild than the anonymous comment zones found on websites major and minor.

I've been a curator of a major newspaper blog or three. I know it is possible to cultivate a civilized and thoughtful forum for people who need not offer real IDs. But the community breaks down any time there's a new outlaw interloper who wanders onto the scene. I was the online version of Judge Roy Bean's "Only Law West of the Pecos" for my corner of the 'Net for a while, and it wasn't easy.

I totally get the attraction of anonymous comments. Sometimes the freedom to speak without fear of retribution allows us to say important things that would not otherwise be said. But to get back to my earlier metaphor, the Internet now has settled towns and even some cities. In those settings,"don't fence me in" is losing, inevitably, to the need for a bit more law and order.

A few months ago, I asked Elinor Ostrom, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, if she had any suggestions for how to maintain reasonable civility in the blogosphere. I asked her because her Nobel is precisely for work proving that common areas can be governed peaceably by the participants under certain conditions. The answer she gave me offers a clue about why Politics Daily and so many other sites are killing the anonymous comments:
"One strategy used by some groups successfully is 'shaming.'

"Some housing co-ops post the name of any member that did not attend a workday or is behind in voluntary payments on a prominent board for posting announcements. Helps keep these infractions down.

"Shaming has to fit the problem and population involved and I can't think of a specific way you could do this but thought I would mention the idea."
It's possible to shame people who post anonymously. Folks who are otherwise civil, but fall briefly over the line, can be jerked back into appropriate behavior -- often they even apologize. But shame works a lot more effectively and broadly if the person who is rebuked is acting in his own name.

I called for just this kind of militant civility when I coined the word "civilogue" and suggested that those of us who believe in it do our best to enforce it. Just as we should generally offer a reasonably polite correction if we are subjected to a racist joke, we should feel the same moral obligation to let people know that insults and unproven personal attacks are not appropriate for political discourse (leaving the boundaries of the "Satire Exception" for another discussion).

So we're going to make you sign in under your real name -- as dead-tree newspapers have always done with letters to the editor. And we will not run any comment that fails to meet our standards, period. (We have formal guidelines. But for a one-stop standard, I really liked the guideline proposed by Politics Daily's Joann M. Weiner a few months ago: "Would you post this comment if your mother knew you were posting it?"

I expect we will hear people claiming we are censoring them. That we are violating their Constitutional right to freedom of expression. Horsepucky.

The Constitution gives you the right to express yourself. It does not guarantee you can do it anyplace you want. If you want to poop on your own living room rug, that's up to you. Do not assume I am required to let you do so on mine. And Politics Daily is private property.

Seriously: In the entire history of homo sapiens, it has never been easier for one person to express themselves with the possibility of reaching a large audience. Even a reasonably bright toddler with Internet access could create a blog in less time than it took you to read this paragraph. And a Twitter feed. A Facebook page. Upload a video to YouTube.

Plenty of sites on the 'Net are still Freedom Hall -- say what you want about whomever you like. If our standards are not to your liking, we invite you to seek them out. (I've done a pub crawl in Key West and am aware that individual tastes in culture and entertainment cross a broad spectrum.)

As for censorship, this piggybacks onto the freedom of speech discussion. When China forces Google to limit the access of Chinese citizens to online information, that is censorship. When ATT chops political content from its exclusive live stream of a Pearl Jam concert, that is censorship. If an organization pressures a publisher to exclude particular facts or points of view from publication, such that it becomes difficult for anybody to publish or read that material, that is censorship. If a group attacks a library and demands that a particular book not be available to the general public, that is censorship.

But if one website -- or even a bunch of them -- decide to establish standards for the material that appears thereon, that's editing. Unlike my censorship examples, where access and expression can be effectively limited by a few people, there is nothing so freely and widely available as the ability to spew online.

Editing, as opposed to censoring, is a form of quality control that those of us who write for a living are all too familiar with. Just as we are aware of just how effective shame can be in keeping our standards elevated.

Like any other good journalist, I live in healthy fear of getting something wrong in print. A bobbled fact. A misunderstood nuance. And part of the reason for my fear is that my name is right on top, for the world to see. My reputation is my main portable commodity, so I fly or fall on how well I meet the standards set by me and my bosses.

You can find a snafu about which I am still embarrassed here. And an apology for another error, this time in tone, here.

Makes my guts churn even now to see those, And makes me vow to redouble my efforts to get it right and do so in a civil and effective manner. Because I know that my good name is always on the line.

Welcome to that world. We really do want you to keep posting passionate, pointed comments. But know that you will stand or fall, in your own traceable name, and on the civility that you employ to express them.