Since the 1950s, most newspapers in this country have refused to print anonymous letters. An argument has more credibility if we know who is advancing it, the reasoning goes, and someone who has to put his name on his opinion will be less likely to be loose with the truth and more careful of other people’s feelings.
But the digital age has shaken up that careful, conservative approach. Commenters got used to submitting their pithy insights anonymously to blogs, forums and other websites, so they wanted the same privilege at newspapers’ electronic editions. Many newspapers have accommodated them, to the point where some regard the signed letter to the editor an endangered species.
Now there are hints, however, that the culture might change again, with signed comments becoming the norm for newspapers online, too.
Some newspapers have banned anonymous comments or are considering bans simply because of how nasty it can get when people can hide their identities and hurl vile insults at one another. There is no discussion so serious or delicate that it can’t attract the most vulgar trash talk imaginable.
And there are legal issues. The Indianapolis Star is the latest newspaper to get called to court by someone demanding the name of an anonymous commenter he said had defamed him. The Star has refused to divulge the name, and the issue is now before the Indiana Supreme Court. Halfway through the litigation, the Star abandoned anonymous commenting and started requiring people to sign in with their Facebook accounts before responding to a Star story online.
If the trend away from anonymity continues, there will certainly some positive changes. Online discourse would become more civil. People might offer more thoughtful arguments, so the quality of comments would improve.
But something would be lost, too.
If you study the history of this country, you’ll find that vigorous, anonymous debate has been part of the nation’s politics for all of our history. In fact, you could say it was included in the blueprint. The First Amendment was designed to protect citizens’ right to speak the truth as they see it without fear of reprisal – it’s an open invitation to anonymity.
“On a philosophical level,” notes Ohio University journalism professor Bill Reader, “anonymity allowed opinions to be considered on their own merits, without regard for who was stating them; on a practical level, it gave people a way to disagree with leaders without getting beaten and/or thrown in jail.”
Debate in this nation has never been meant for timid souls. The more of those we create, the more our conversations – and our democracy – will suffer.