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In online commenting, anonymity breeds bad behavior

Let me finish tonight with this.

Let me finish tonight with this.

Yesterday, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton signed off. In his final column, Pexton said the number one topic of complaint to him while ombudsman had been the Post's online comment system. Readers often said they "like the idea of online comments but abhor the hatefulness, juvenile name-calling, racism and ideological warfare that are constant features of The Post's commenting stream."

As an example, he cited ugly comments on a recent story about a high school football coach who criticized the first lady's derriere.

Yesterday, I went to see what he was talking about. There were 5,000 comments posted to that story when I looked. The very first of them, posted by someone who would only call themself "dsteibs," said this:

I also believe Michelle Obama does have a fat butt. I also don't like what queers do because it does go against God and Jesus's teachings. 

In other words, it was exactly the sort of uncivil comment Pexton was talking about.

So what's to be done? Pexton recommended the Post go the way of the Miami Herald—away from anonymous postings to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and sign in via Facebook.

So, of course, I wondered what kind of comments people would post to that suggestion.

From VA_Dawg:

...anonymity serves two very important functions: it permits people to speak more freely. This is a form of sunlight as disinfectant. Anonymity also allows people to express quality opinions and ideas where they might otherwise be constrained because of their immediate social setting...

And from yellojkt

It's not the anonymity that creates the bile. It's the inadequate and ineffective moderation. Where standards are fairly and uniformly enforced people behave themselves.

Hey, these comments were reasonable and a good conversation about free speech. Too bad they were followed by SOTG:

Good riddance to you, you milksop. The Post is worse than Pravda...In a world increasingly built upon lies, the WaPo is in the vanguard. I do not thank you for your service; you have no spine and merit no good wishes of any sort. In fact, you are—well, I will not go there.

Disrespectful, but still tame when compared to some other savagery online. In 2010, a 17 year-old girl from Long Island committed suicide only to have trolls descend on her tribute page and post nooses. In 2006, an 18 year-old California girl died in an auto accident only to have photographs of her disfigured body disseminated online and someone actually emailed them to her parents with a subject line that read: "Hey Daddy, I'm still alive."

Anonymity breeds bad behavior. Patrick Pexton is right: it's time to figure out a way to reign in those who denigrate the level of conversation.

If you want to stand on a soapbox in the town square, we still get to see your face.