Another year, another round of "how do we vanquish the trolls online" discussions. This round begins with an AP Big Story about how major sites are dealing with the inevitable ugliness that comes with just about any story on any topic.
Speaking as one who moderated message boards for CNN on Compuserve and through their migration to the Internet, I had to laugh at this:
What websites don't want is the kind of off-putting nastiness that spewed forth under a recent CNN.com article about the Affordable Care Act.
"If it were up to me, you progressive libs destroying this country would be hanging from the gallows for treason. People are awakening though. If I were you, I'd be very afraid," wrote someone using the name "JBlaze."
Off-putting nastiness or free speech? That kind of comment would have been considered borderline, but ultimately not removable because it wasn't a direct threat, and "JBlaze" knows that. Whoever wrote that understood how close to the line they could walk without being tipped over the edge, and they availed themselves of it.
AP's writer gets this much right when they point to identity as the crux of the problem:
Anonymity has always been a major appeal of online life. Two decades ago, The New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon with a dog sitting in front of a computer, one paw on the keyboard. The caption read: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." At its best, anonymity allows people to speak freely without repercussions. It allows whistle blowers and protesters to espouse unpopular opinions. At its worst, it allows people to spout off without repercussions. It gives trolls and bullies license to pick arguments, threaten and abuse.
Then they veer off the rails:
"It's not so much that our offline lives are going online, it's that our offline and online lives are more integrated," says Mark Lashley, a professor of communications at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Facebook, which requires people to use their real names, played a big part in the seismic shift.
Some people merge their online and offline identities, but they aren't generally the ones leaving comments suggesting all liberals should hang. Those comments are left by someone who likely maintains a legitimate verifiable identity on Facebook and elsewhere, and reserves sock puppet accounts for the "hang 'em high" comments.
Use of real names or linked Facebook accounts is not going to fix this problem. What might fix it is some standardized identity verification system where one may privately establish their identity but still use a pseudonym. In other words, an accountability system where either an entity or a person owns what they say.
As long as the Internet is developed by mostly libertarians, I have low expectations for seeing any meaningful tools that would accomplish that goal. Anonymity is a celebrated Internet value, no matter what harm it does to people. Anonymity facilitates disinhibition.
In the political space, public relations firms routinely use the cloak of anonymity to chill criticism or paint their clients in a favorable light, like Fox News did.
While I think it's admirable for large sites to wrestle with the problem, it's also amusing to see them turn to the solutions they deployed before they decided the bottom line mattered more than their users. CNN.com is a perfect example. They had a robust moderator staff who made sure users were able to express themselves but in acceptable ways. We managed to survive the Clinton impeachment, the UPS strike and Princess Diana's death without blowing up the Internet, until AOL bought CNN and decided the Wild West was better than actual discussions.
Now that AOL owns the Huffington Post, they're suddenly concerned enough about trolling to require real names and even deploy human moderators. Everything old is new again, it seems.
Ironically, that AP article received lots of its own nasty comments. But then, they did invite that by closing their article by trolling readers with this:
We can't wait to see the response to this story.