The Pulse: Newspapers should ID online commenters

Posted: May 13, 2013

Show us your face.

That's my solution to the online issue of incivility to which Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie recently fell victim at Philly.com. Vitriolic postings about his recent marriage illustrate the need for media-sponsored websites to implement the same rules that apply to a speaker sounding off in the town's square:

Say what you want, but the public gets to see who you are.

John Featherman, a Philly.com columnist, reported that as soon as word of Lurie's nuptials to a woman of Vietnamese heritage was published, a blogosphere barrage began. The racist and derogatory comments included "Mail order bride" and "She had him at 'me love you long time.' " There were references to gold-digging, Vietnamese dog-eating, and "happy endings." They were eventually taken off the site, but they were there long enough to reinforce my belief that the potential for harm of anonymous newspaper-sponsored public forums outweighs any value.

John Suler, who has been teaching psychology for 30-plus years at Rider University, has a name for what drives the bad behavior: online disinhibition effect.

"When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up," Suler says. "Whatever they say or do can't be directly linked to the rest of their lives. They don't have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of who they 'really' are.

"When acting out hostile feelings," he adds, "the person doesn't have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviors 'aren't me at all.' In psychology this is called 'dissociation.' "

That sounds to me like a scholarly way of saying there's no online accountability, a problem easily solved by identification.

I think Julie Zhuo agrees with me. As a product-design manager at Facebook, she wrote an op-ed two years ago for the New York Times in which she cited the tragic death of Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old Long Island girl, who committed suicide in 2010. Internet trolls descended on Pilkington's online tribute page to post pictures of nooses, references to hangings, and other hateful comments.

Her case is no aberration.

Nicole Catsouras, 18, died in a car crash in California in 2006. Photographs of her badly disfigured body were posted on the Internet, where anonymous trolls set up fake tribute pages and, in some cases, e-mailed the photos to her parents with subject lines like "Hey, Daddy, I'm still alive."

"Some may argue that denying Internet users the ability to post anonymously is a breach of their privacy and freedom of expression. But, until the age of the Internet, anonymity was a rare thing. When someone spoke in public, his audience would naturally be able to see who was talking," Zhuo correctly noted.

Patrick Pexton is another convert to regulating online speech. Until March, he was the ombudsman for the Washington Post. In his final column, Pexton said the number-one topic of complaint to him had been the Post's online comment system. Readers often said they "like the idea of online comments but abhor the hatefulness, juvenile name-calling, racism, and ideological warfare that are constant features of the Post's commenting stream," Pexton wrote.

As an example, he cited ugly comments on a story about a high school football coach who criticized the first lady's derriere. By the time I located the story he was referencing, there were already 5,000 comments posted. The first of them, of course by someone who would only call him/herself "dsteibs," said this:

"I also believe Michelle Obama does have a fat butt. I also don't like what queers do because it does go against God and Jesus's teachings."

The posting was a great illustration of Pexton's point. His solution? For the Post to follow the example of the Miami Herald and move away from anonymous postings to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and sign in via Facebook. He's right, and The Inquirer should, too.

Of course, I wondered what kind of comments people would post to Pexton's suggestion. Among them was "VA Dawg," who said:

"anonymity serves two very important functions: it permits people to speak more freely. This is a form of sunlight as disinfectant. Anonymity also allows people to express quality opinions and ideas where they might otherwise be constrained because of their immediate social setting."

That's a rational, reasonable observation, albeit one that did not alter my thinking. The potential whistle-blowers contemplated by "VA Dawg" have plenty of other avenues to report bad behavior in the public interest. Nothing stops a citizen from contacting a journalist privately, especially in a world where virtually every reporter and editor has a social profile that makes him accessible. I'm arguing only against being able to anonymously post hatred in a public forum.

"Yellojkt" had this to say to Pexton:

"It's not the anonymity that creates the bile. It's the inadequate and ineffective moderation. Where standards are fairly and uniformly enforced people behave themselves."

I disagree. The Lurie posts were policed and removed. But the level of vigilance required to monitor all postings in real time is prohibitive. People will "behave" themselves when they can't hide.

Finally, there was the post of "SOTG":

"Good riddance to you, you milksop. The Post is worse than Pravda. . . . In a world increasingly built upon lies, the WaPo is in the vanguard. I do not thank you for your service; you have no spine and merit no good wishes of any sort. In fact, you are - well, I will not go there."

Typical. And further confirmation that media websites have become the equivalent of high schools sponsoring what gets written in bathroom stalls.

We can, and should, change this. In the meantime, you can go ahead and post. In fact, why not start with: "For a good time, call Michael . . ."


Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.

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