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.

don't read the comments

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read