Thursday, 24 March 2011

Why I am for anonymous comment on newspaper sites

Times journalist David Aaronovich tweeted earlier today asking for comment on the following:

"Can anyone think of a reason why commenters on newspaper sites should be allowed to be anonymous, or use pseudonyms?"

He currently seems firmly of the opinion that comment should be 'attributable'. I disagree strongly with this and want to set out as concisely as I can why.

It boils down to 2 basic reasons: I don't believe the reasons I hear against anonymous commenting, and b) there are several reasons why I can see it's a good thing

Points against anonymity (I will respond to any others given) with my answers in bold:

  1. “…If you want to say it, put your name next to it.” But WHY??? We haven't been given a reason
  2. "It makes abuses easier as in the Guardian comments on Belle du Jour": The case of what was said about Belle du Jour was horrible, but the real culprit was the Guardian for not acting quickly when Dr Magnanti sent numerous complaints and requests for the offensive comment to be removed. Also see my point below re: free speech.
  3. "It adds a measure of quality to the discussion": good point - look at Youtube. I suggest that the best answer to this issue is good (but sparing) moderation, not a measure that is as likely to curtail good comment as much as bad.
  4. "I can't think of a reason for anonymity": Terrible argument. Just because you can't imagine a situation where it would be useful doesn't mean there isn't one (this error in logic crops up all over the place!). Secondly, the burden of proof is on those against anonymity in my opinion. They have to tell us why it's a bad thing.
  5. "The internet is not as anonymous as you think it is": (good luck finding info about me from a dynamic IP address then:) This is a problem, but not a reason to make it less private
Points in favour of anonymity: 
  1. It promotes free speech. This way everything is out in the open, including the crazy stuff. By far the healthiest way of dealing with it.
  2. There are several good reasons why, if one did have to give ones true identity out, it might stop one from saying what one thought and knew:
    • Someone's job may be put into jeopardy precisely because they are in a position to know more about a subject than others on the comment page. Their input may be crucial to people's understanding of an issue - and may be morally more important
    • One's own personal circumstances may stop one from commenting, eg on health, money, or relationship matters that one wants to keep private. This has happened to me several times - there is NO reason why people need to know all about my life, but I still have much to say on certain topics.  
  3. Personal threats routinely happen on the web to those who express their views 
  4. Precisely the lack of privacy we already suffer from. People's private data is misused on the web enough. We need to protect people from this.
  5. Conversely, people can fake identities if they wish. Most users will often just see the users name and assume it is true
  6. People must be able to judge on WHAT IS SAID in a debate, not the person saying it. Ad Hominems fly about more than any other kind of false argument and are useless in assessing an issue. This is crucial.
Statistics/research bias:

Aaronovich said to me "what about a piece of research done - you'd want to know the interests of the people doing it"?  True but really it is the research that stands up or fails: Is the denominator big enough? Are the conclusions valid? Could there be confounding factors that haven't been accounted for? Have participants been asked leading questions?  Usually bad research sticks out like a sore thumb to those who are practised in assessing it. 

One of the sticking points with statistics is this: Is there any chance the numbers could have been tampered with? Do we need to repeat the research? In this case then yes, knowledge of the interests of those doing the research IS useful, but I suggest this is not relevant to the argument over comment anonymity. In this case we have to assume that anyone may be biassed, but we have to judge the arguments on their own merit.

If someone is offering eg: statistics on a comments page, we're right to be wary of them if the source of the statistics is unknown. 

Parallels with historical research

Similarly historians routinely look at an authors opinions/interests when assessing his/her journal articles. As if History has conducted in the same way as politics. I can only say that if you don't have much evidence, then your conclusions are that much the less valid.

Good debate needs to be as close as possible to Mathematical proof or a jury's "reasonable doubt" - and as far as possible from bickering historians arguing over scant evidence that is entirely inconclusive, as happens all to often in that discipline, in my view.

1 comment:

  1. Right I must comment on my own blog: other ways of dealing with trolls are "Ignore" features (ignore a comment or a particular poster), votes up/down or marking as many ways as well as moderation...

    At the very least have anonymous pseudonyms linked to valid email addresses, please!