Web anonymity does not justify lack of civility

Published 8:55 am Thursday, April 22, 2010

Many college students have heard these words muttered by their parents countless times, “Treat others how you want to be treated,” and, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” When did it become OK to chuck these simple, yet important rules out the window? Are adults allowed to forget these lessons they’ve been taught?

I have pondered these questions since last year when I read troubling anonymous comments on the website of my local newspaper, the Albert Lea Tribune. The article, “Kids Against Hunger,” described a student-driven event at my school that was led by my classmate. The event’s purpose was raising money for packaged meals for Haitian children, but some community members apparently needed to bash the cause because it didn’t benefit them. It was extremely pathetic, and I was disgusted.

A more recent story that shocked me was a column submitted by an 18-year-old girl from my high school about her views on gay marriage. Although I don’t share her opinion, I thought the article was very well-written.

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There were 104 comments following the article, all under anonymous usernames. Most comments didn’t just criticize the article, but criticized the writer herself. A journalist is aware of the types of criticism he or she may receive when writing an opinion piece for a newspaper. But when adults start throwing around nasty comments behind usernames about a high school student who was brave enough to tag her name to her opinion, they need to grow up and take responsibility for their actions.

One way to hold commenters accountable is to require them to submit both a first and last name. It teaches people to take responsibility for their comments because they are no longer able to hide behind silly, anonymous usernames. This method is included in TommieMedia.com’s comment policy, which states that you don’t have to be a registered member to comment, but you must include your first and last name with your e-mail address. This lessens the chances of receiving irrelevant comments or comments submitted during outbursts of rage.

Although there are fewer comments after stories on TommieMedia.com than on other newspaper websites that don’t require a first and last name, the comments posted are more civilized because of this policy.

Following each story, unless commenting is disabled, the Albert Lea Tribune includes its comment policy, which states it encourages respectful dialogue in the spirit of community enlightenment, but doesn’t allow name-calling, vulgarity or claims of criminality and any such comments will be removed. The Star Tribune also has a policy with similar guidelines, but neither policy is enforced enough.

Comments reflect a community. If a local newspaper’s comments are filled with negative feedback and petty banter, it doesn’t reflect well upon the community and certainly doesn’t leave people reading an article with positive thoughts. We have the privilege of free speech here in America, but we should be careful we don’t use the privilege to say mean and hurtful things, such as what I’ve read in some comments.

There have been many times when I have been upset not by an article but by the comments at the end of the article. Sometimes out of pure rage I have whipped up my own words of hate in response, but before pressing submit I ask myself, how do I want to be portrayed as a person? Do I want one comment posted out of rage to reflect upon how I was raised? No, I don’t and nobody should.

Some may say if you don’t like the comments don’t read them. The truth of the matter isn’t that I don’t like comments, it is that I lose respect for people who spit insults anonymously. They hide behind usernames and freely attack the writer, subjects in the article and other commenters because they don’t have to take responsibility for it. All news websites should require a commenter’s first and last name on comments to hold people accountable like TommieMedia.com does.

If commenters want people to listen to their opinions, they must reveal who they really are, otherwise their comments lack credibility. Anonymous commenting allows individuals to say hurtful things because nobody knows who the person is behind the username and they can avoid the heat of arguments when they aren’t connected to the web. It’s a “what happens on the Web, stays on the Web” type of thing.

By making people responsible for their comments, it minimizes the hurtful words spoken and increases civility among a community of readers. Commenters should drop the protective screen of anonymity and take responsibility for what they believe in.

Ashley Stewart studies journalism at St. Thomas University and is a former Albert Lea Tribune intern.