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Anonymous commenting: exasperating but essential

The antiracism group Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda elevated the conversation around online commenting and social discourse with a thought-provoking webinar this week that brought together an assortment of media and social-media personalities. Central to the debate were the following questions:

“Do online news media platforms require regulation for the prevalence of anonymous, pseudonymous and unverified users on their platforms? Anonymity contributes to the main scourges of online social media: disinformation, misinformation, misogynistic and racial abuse. Is it time for a degree of regulatory oversight for private companies that design and use social-media platforms for their private gain to be held accountable for their overall social impact?”

Anonymous commenting has been a topic of furious debate for media houses since they caught up with and began reaping the benefit of the internet age — in the Bermuda context, by the mid-2000s.

Comment streams are said to be havens for crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness. It pains to admit this, as much of the rancour can be found on our site when unpoliced, but it is a truth we cannot avoid, and is reflective of society and entirely not unique to Bermuda.

We live in an online and social-media world that is dominated in the main by Facebook, a multibillion-dollar company made in America, where freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment and where libel is rarely, if ever, prosecuted successfully.

Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat and several others provide the same vehicle for abuse, misinformation and disinformation, which is impossible to prosecute with any degree of certainty. It is also worth noting that media houses allowing comments do so with the intent of inviting expression on content built by journalists, while many forms of social media are less focused and allow for anonymous commenting on user-generated content.

While our libel laws in Bermuda differ to those in the United States, we need to be very careful when looking to apply what would be a double standard in the realms of regulation. Facebook is largely unregulated and is used to spread the word by virtually every Bermudian media house and website. It would be highly punitive for local organisations to be held to a standard that those who profit most from our product are not subjected to.

We cannot deny that anonymous commenters can be the scourge of our existence, but on the flip side they can also be sources of great insight and differing but valued opinion. Engagement with readers helps to both widen debate and enable news organisations to be more in touch with readers and users. There is a price to be paid for that, but the alternative is to live in a vacuum or echo chamber in which we make assumptions or reinforce our own beliefs without really being exposed to other viewpoints.

As journalists, part of our job is to determine, with an open mind, which of those views are valid and useful — especially when we may disagree with them — and which are simply hateful. That is not easy, but it is a worthwhile exercise if it helps to make for a more relevant news organisation that is sensitive to its readers’ needs

Studies have shown that media houses have more to lose and very little to gain from allowing comments at all — on their bottom lines and in improving their public images. And to some, having stories and other content with no ability to comment would solve all the problems. But it is a huge gamble when set alongside the theory of website traffic driving business and the continual decline of newspapers, in particular, as a physical presence since the global economic downturn in 2008. And, most significantly, engaging readers beyond point of contact.

The famous 1993 cartoon published by The New Yorker is still pertinent on the topic of anonymity, what defines it and why it will be around for ever:

One mutt to another: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The same applies on websites, social media, radio call-in talk shows. There is just no way of knowing.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle said on the issue: "You can be whoever you want to be. You can completely redefine yourself if you want. You don't have to worry about the slots other people put you in as much. They don't look at your body and make assumptions. All they see are your words."

So what do we do?

The challenge is to find a way to balance protection for speakers whose anonymous comments have social merit with the need to allow persons to seek justice against those whose anonymity cloaks illegal or truly injurious behaviour.

Outside of The New York Times, which employs a full-time moderation team, few media houses possess the resources to moderate comments around the clock — we most definitely do not possess such resources in Bermuda. So the answer may be to further elevate the climate in the online community where it pays to be a worthy contributor to debate. Not financially but through means of promotion/placement on sites.

Some do this already, but maybe more can be done.

The conversation is worth having, Curb is to be applauded for stimulating it, and it is one that should be sustained as we strive in this communication age to progress to a near utopian society where respect is our greatest commonality — even if there exist few others.

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Published March 05, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated March 05, 2021 at 9:21 am)

Anonymous commenting: exasperating but essential

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