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Asher '15: Anonymous comments are not free speech

Generally, writing these columns for The Herald is a good gig. I get to write about what I want to write about, I see my face grainily plastered on papers across campus, and it’s a good conversation starter — what’s not to like?

The commenters. Oh, the commenters. The few, the proud, the anonymous. Some are totally anonymous guest accounts created solely for the purpose of commenting on a specific piece. Then there are those with handles whom you can watch pop up on articles and columns across the site like vicious little whack-a-moles, spewing whatever they feel like spewing on a particular day about a particular topic.

My skin used to be much thinner when it came to nasty comments. A particularly bad one would bother me for days. I took it personally and, for a little while, it made me afraid to write about what I truly care about — when someone resorts to ad hominem attacks about topics you’re not as passionate about, they’re more easily dismissible. It hurts less.

And I’m not ashamed to admit I felt hurt — I’m human. And that’s kind of the thing, isn’t it? At the end of the day, there is a real Adam Asher walking around campus, interacting with people and hoping no one noticed him tripping up the stairs to the Blue Room. The things I write are attached to that name, that person, and I have to live with what I say.

The appeal of anonymous commenting is none of that has to be the case. Even better, an anonymous identity allows for a whole new you, which may account for why anonymous nasty comments are such a scourge — the commenter cannot be hit back nearly as hard as a real person. If the writer takes the bait and engages you in ad hominem attacks, there’s no “hominem,” so to speak. You can always feel safe in the knowledge that whatever entity they’re attacking isn’t really you, but some alternate identity you created for this purpose. You’re a layer removed, and it’s easy to leave a comment behind and not have to think about it ever again.

I’m going to come right out and say anonymous commenting is not fair. I did not sign up to be a punching bag for virtual degenerates, and I and my fellow columnists should not have to be. For that matter, no writer should have to deal with anonymous criticism delivered with the venom we see online daily. I am fully in support of discourse about the topics of which I write. I am even okay with having comments at the bottom of articles, even though it sometimes feels a bit like someone scribbling whatever they happen to think of on your newspaper.

But to have that right to engage in a conversation, you have to have the minimum amount of skin in the game. You need to have an unchanging name, and it should be yours. Last week, Maggie Tennis ’14 and Cara Newlon ’14 wrote a joint column entitled “Don’t read the comments” (April 17), in which they addressed the epidemic of subtle and not-so-subtle sexism in The Herald’s comments sections. I have to imagine that if there were real names and real people attached to comments, people would have much more shame in posting condescending, sexist comments.

Moreover, below that particular column, there were — thankfully — a number of supportive comments. These were, for the most part, not anonymous. There were names, class years, even pictures. There were, in short, people. Real people. I don’t think this is a coincidence. People want positive, good contributions attached to their name. Vice versa, having one’s name attached to a comment might nudge it toward positivity. At the very least, it might encourage a more constructive kind of criticism.

I’m not hoping to eliminate negative comments altogether. If people want to be hateful, I’ll grudgingly concede they have the right to be hateful. I’m all for free speech — I simply think it’s a right belonging to real human beings. According to my interpretation, anonymous online entities are not protected under the First Amendment. According to the Supreme Court, though, corporations are, so maybe I’m just behind on the times.

All I ask is that the same standards of decency to which we hold ourselves in real life apply online. This isn’t so far-fetched — the lines between “Internet culture” and “real culture” are blurring more and more every day, and our discourse should follow suit. Say what you will about us columnists and our ideas, but we’re putting ourselves — our real selves — out there on a regular basis. To all you commenters out there who up to this point haven’t had the guts to do the same, here’s your chance. Tell me why I’m an idiot — just leave a proper sign-off.

 

Adam Asher ’15 is a classics concentrator IRL.



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