Consequence-free speech

By | July 28, 2016

anonymous online speech

“My mood, I say, was one of exaltation. I felt as a seeing man might do, with padded feet and noiseless clothes, in a city of the blind. I experienced a wild impulse to jest, to startle people, to clap men on the back, fling people’s hats astray, and generally revel in my extraordinary advantage.” H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, 1897Chapter 21.

Anonymous online comments are often audacious, as in “having a confident and daring quality that is often seen as shocking or rude.”

Is how we talk about difficult topics online having an influence how civilly we treat/talk to each other offline? In this current political election cycle, it seems like civility is regressing online and off.

Is online anonymity the foundation of incivility? I’m not convinced. Real name policies haven’t cured the cancer of incivility in most online comment forums. I find Facebook comments — most of which reveal people’s actual names, as well as their photos, workplace and familial connections — to be nastier and meaner than the pseudonym-powered comments on most news websites.

Does the credibility of a comment at the bottom of a news story depend on whether or not it is signed? I’m not convinced of that either. Your average citizen commenter – whether it’s Joe Jones from Tampa or Sally Smith from Stamford – won’t be known to the mass media audience anyway, so their “credibility” doesn’t come from their name.

Like NBC”s “The Voice,” we don’t need to know commenters names, hometowns or what they look like to judge whether the ideas/opinions they post are worthwhile. We judge credibility after reading what they say.

Is the comment smart? Emotional? Snarky? Provocative? Condescending? Vulgar? Is it filled with typos and grammatical errors? Does it challenge our perspective or present some new information? Is it incendiary? Hateful?

If the comment is signed by a well-known person – a celebrity or public figure – then the audience may prejudge the comment based by that person’s existing reputation.

If an ordinary commenter’s title or location information is posted with the comment, that person’s professional expertise or where they are from may influence their credibility. Silly or offensive avatars and pseudonyms can undermine credibility, too.

Facebook commenting threads can show a user’s self-disclosed location and/or title, which supplies the audience with useful credibility signals. But it is not uncommon for that self-disclosed information to be used by dissenting commenters with opposing agendas as ammunition to attack (such as when I saw a self-described clergyman post a hateful comment on a USAToday politics story and then get pummeled with insults from the crowd pointing out his hypocrisy.)

Real name policies on online forums, however, do make the threat of “real life” offline consequences more of a possibility, and may therefore constrain some online commenters from releasing a tirade, or encourage others to be more thoughtful before posting. In forcing online commenters to attach their real names and their professional/community reputations to comments posted in the public sphere, online commenters own their opinions and any impact/fallout as a result of broadcasting their ideas. Like anything posted on the Internet publicly, online comments are searchable and archived. Real name ownership adds a level of societal consequences, whereas unsigned comments are essentially consequence-free.

How dangerous is consequence-free speech?


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