During the seven years that I worked as part of a team of digital journalists and moderators at The Times and The Sunday Times, I was asked the same question by colleagues every week: why do we let our readers comment anonymously under articles?
My response was always the same: that forcing them to use their real names risked excluding readers because they didn’t want to reveal sensitive information (whether that was sexuality, ethnicity or what they did for work) or believed such information would make them a target.
I had a bank of studies and resources to try and demonstrate to my colleagues that anonymity wasn’t the problem: J Nathan Matias’s guide for the Coral Project
, this 2015 Wired piece
with quotes from sociologist Katie Cross and this wider look at anonymity
by Canadian tech founder Austin Hill. I highlighted positive examples of anonymous commenting on our site and pointed to the fact that Facebook comments (in which real names are common) were often the most vile
. Yes, we had some troublesome users who happened to be anonymous but their anonymity wasn’t the defining issue. I thought we’d reached a consensus, both in the newsroom and more widely.
Clearly not. A new report
published this week from new non-profit Clean up the Internet
lays out, once again, the case against online anonymity
. The report (which is ominously called ’Time to take off their masks?’) states that there is a:
‘broad consensus that the prevalence of anonymous, pseudonymous and unverified users on social media and other fora is one of the most significant factors contributing to (online abuse and misinformation)’.
It goes onto make three recommendations about how social media platforms can restrict toxic anonymity, notably through account verification, and is accompanied by a YouGov poll (nothing says legitimacy like asking the British public their opinion) that says 83% of Brits think the ability to post anonymously makes people ruder online.
I’ll let you read the report
for yourself but safe to say there are some large holes: the underplaying of positive aspects of anonymity; the fact personal details — address, bank, passport or national ID — would be held by companies that have a history of data breaches and government complicity; that co-ordinated disinformation campaigns would likely happen anyway (see email fraud and phishing attempts).
To be fair to the report’s author, consultant David Babbs, the report does say that ’there is no single explanation’ for the prevalence of online harassment and incivility. However, it is not a nuanced position — end anonymity and you fix the internet is the main thrust — and it certainly fails to reflect the work being done by platforms, academics and moderators worldwide to address what can only be termed a crisis of speech.
Luckily for us, there are numerous good projects tackling the problem of online abuse, without potentially restricting their voice, from Media Diversity Institute
’s hate speech training
to Glitch’s A Little Means a Lot Campaign
to the Alan Turing Institute
’s research project
I’d much prefer to support these initiatives and stop calling for anonymity, once and for all.
+. Bonus read
: Stephen Kinsella, the founder of Clean up the Internet, also wrote a piece
for Byline Times.