Please, do not feed the comment trolls

Websites should not crack down on anonymous users, though they can be cruel.

by Ronald Dixon

The Internet provides a platform for millions of people around the world to openly express their opinions and contribute to the marketplace of ideas. An overarching freedom, though, inherently enables abuses from a minority of wrongdoers.

Online, these perpetrators are known as “trolls.” They derive pleasure from insulting and threatening others from behind fake profile names.

From the perspective of website administrators, this is certainly a troubling problem. For example, whenever a news website posts a controversial article, blog or column, it’s bound to receive a torrent of comments from Internet trolls. This has the potential to remove journalists’ desire to post public content in the first place.

I empathize with the administrators and writers who bear the burden of hateful comments and death threats. When I used to post political YouTube videos in high school, I received a barrage of hate mail on a daily basis. Even some of the responses to my Minnesota Daily columns have been in poor taste.

Anne Applebaum of Slate proposes that we resolve this problem by removing anonymous commenters.

In theory, requiring all users to verify their personal identities before providing feedback to Internet content would reduce commenters’ incentive to submit damaging comments. This is because commenters will fear their posts becoming linked to their identities, thus threatening their personal credibility, employment security and intimate relationships.

On the surface, the suggestion to associate one’s website username with his or her personal identity sounds like an excellent solution to this problem. However, upon closer inspection, these proposed regulations would have unintended negative consequences.

One of the harms of eliminating Internet anonymity is that it would suppress controversial ideas. While many online individuals are perfectly comfortable sharing their views on a topic that neatly align with the general zeitgeist, it may be daunting to express an opinion that relatively few people share. This is especially true if one fears that someone they know will find an objectionable comment.

Another issue that Applebaum fails to consider is the inevitability of fake usernames. If a website began requiring that all of its comments be connected to users’ Facebook accounts, for example, then one would only need to create a fake account to circumvent the registration effort.

As long as we have freedom of speech and expression, trolls will take advantage of these rights for their own sick ends. The best solution is simply to ignore the trolls, as they feed off negative reactions to their hateful comments. Indeed, if everyone began to follow this advice, then the problem would dissipate overnight.