Stop giving trolls the cover of online anonymity

Peter Kammerer says if anonymity has allowed some internet users to abuse others as they please, it's time to remove the cover

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 10:51pm

There was a time when trawling through the comments section to stories in this publication and others was a source of enlightenment, sometimes amusement. Not any more. The amount of hatred, animosity, snobbishness and downright rudeness has put me off even bothering. It's a pity because such forums are an excellent source for a new angle to a discussion while gauging sentiment to issues.

Comments on my colleague Alex Lo's daily My Take column were one of the reasons for my turnaround. His position on issues is not always the same as mine, but that is not cause to greet him each day with slurs, scowls and threats. I suspect he enjoys reading them, but I now no longer do; each day, it seems the same people who long ago made clear their beliefs and politics retread the same well-worn themes. Generally, their comments have nothing to do with what Alex has written.

What turned me was a comment to a restaurant review in which one commenter had taken exception to the view of another on the chicken dish served. A sexual reference was used, as well as an attack on the mother of the poster, a racial slur and a final, "I hope you die of cancer". Poultry has never had this effect on me, but online, with some people, it apparently evokes the most hot-headed anger. Anyway, so jaw-dropping was the pointlessness of this uninvited outrage that I have since given scant regard to that "comment" link or button at the end of articles and posts.

I am not the only one. An increasing number of online sites are shutting down their comments section, the latest being Popular Science magazine. Trolls and spambots have got in the way of the lively, intellectual online debate it strives to foster, its editors explained last week in making the announcement. It's a pity, as learned discussion is vital to important matters like science and technology.

But that will never happen unless people respect the decorum required of everyday life in the online world. It seems that, as soon as they log in, they transform from decent, upstanding members of society to rude, narrow-minded individuals. They behave in ways they wouldn't dare face-to-face. Such unreasonable behaviour has little to do with online freedoms, though; it's all about anonymity.

This is where mainland authorities have got it right with the internet. While their censorship is abhorrent, their requirement that people register for online services and sites with real names takes a significant step towards making commenters think twice before posting.

Aggressive moderating is time-consuming and impractical for sites with large amounts of content. Only a rare few have highly intellectual readers. So it's best to require that people cannot hide behind handles and nicknames.

I'm all for forums where all-comers can have their say, if they like. But personal attacks, snarky remarks and the general ugliness of comments sections, Twitter and the like add nothing to understanding or conversations. On the internet, you don't have to show your face if you don't want to, but you should at least be willing to reveal who you are.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post