Anonymity degrades public discourse

‘Don’t read the comments’ is good advice when people don’t put their name to what they write

If you are reading this article online, you might have noticed that the Yukon News website has undergone a significant makeover in the last few weeks.

But more important than the changes in layout and appearance is the new requirement that readers must now login using their Facebook accounts in order to post comments to articles and columns.

Previously, commenters could snark at local reporters, columnists, and those brave enough to write letters using their real names from behind a cloak of anonymity or pseudonyms. Other news organizations have also started requiring real names in recent years.

This change encourages (without guaranteeing) more thoughtful and respectful commentary.

I have in the past noticed, anecdotally, that there is a stark difference between the relative civility of comments posted on this paper’s Facebook page and those expressed by anonymous commenters on the website itself.

Anonymity seems to change us and not for the better. Identification, on the other hand, imposes a certain measure of accountability. And I think that is a good thing.

Quite frankly, if you aren’t going to actually read what someone has written and jump to the comments section to opine on the headline you deserve to be exposed for the lazy and reactive person that you are. A headline isn’t a “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) version of a piece. It is supposed to be a short attention grabber that usually wasn’t even written by the person who wrote the bulk of the article.

And if you want to insult, call people names, or impugn motives, at least have the courage to show who you are.

Requiring real names is a reasonable compromise that encourages dialogue while subtly regulating tone.

The expressions “freedom of speech” and “free expression” are tossed around a lot. As a legal principle, “free expression” is of very limited, albeit essential, scope. It is merely a protection each of us enjoys against the excesses of powerful governments in sanctioning us for the things we have to say. That’s it and that’s all. It gives us no right to a platform, or to protection against the backlash to the statements we make.

But as an ideal, free expression ought to be given much broader scope. Certain institutions both public (like universities) and private (like news organizations) owe it to our democratic society to give voice to a wide array of different views on different subjects. The comments section at this paper and others has resulted in a democratization of media that didn’t exist in the past era of pure print media.

If I have some reservations about the move away from anonymity it is that it’s difficult to question certain prevailing orthodoxies without repercussions. It always has been. For devotees of certain ideologies it isn’t enough to simply express disagreement when someone challenges your worldview and move on. Dissenters must be strongly denounced and shamed. Real world consequences — even lost employment — must be felt by heretics.

These unquestionable orthodoxies will differ from place to place and over time. In the past, questioning a dominant religion, a war effort, or the primacy of a particular economic system (think McCarthyism) might lead to censure.

Those wishing to stake out any nuanced sort of middle ground or challenge certain assertions recoil in fear of backlash stifling debate and discussion. As Jonathan Kay recently wrote in a must-read piece in the National Post, “the profession’s finest minds are primarily focused on avoiding mob censure.”

But let’s not get too far off track. The reality is that anonymous comments sections have done nothing to enhance these debates. If anything they have further polarized them.

As a writer, I have a love-hate relationship with the comments section — oscillating between obsession with and alienation from from the comments section.

I like to believe that I have relatively thick skin and can take the vitriol that is sometimes thrown my way. All jobs have prerequisites and a certain tolerance for snark is essential for anyone who puts their views out there in the public realm. It comes with the privilege of the platform.

But I also welcome dissent. For far too many people disagreement, even polite disagreement, is regarded as uncouth. People get their backs up and take matters too personally when their views are challenged. This is something we as a society should work to change.

From time to time I’ve been convinced that I was wrong — and occasionally even shown to be flat out, unquestionably wrong. At other times, while being ultimately unconvinced by dissenting arguments, the comments have provided me with food for thought or with an opportunity to clarify or expand upon a particular point.

I hope that those who have weighed in will continue to do so. We are all better for that type of dialogue.

Just use your name.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.