Sites have to find their own way with anonymity

More than a decade ago, when the Internet was a more innocent space, I came across the term "ego-surfing".

It captured what many of us liked to do back then on the quiet - check our name online to see where and how we'd been mentioned.

I remember writing a piece about people's adventures in ego-surfing. I discovered online namesakes who led more interesting lives than me. But at least nobody was saying anything particularly negative about me. Today, however, googling one's name can be an ego-bruising and even masochistic habit, which is probably why nobody uses the term ego-surfing any more.

Any writer must now learn to cope with an online environment where personal attacks are more common than substantive criticism.

But that's a trade-off that many of us accept, since there's no doubt that the Internet is probably the best gift to writing since the printing press.

The Government is less sanguine. A week ago, the Prime Minister hinted at things to come when he said that the Government will need to develop a framework that will protect the responsible use of the Internet. Among other things, he addressed the problem of trolling, noting that it deters serious readers from participating in forums and poisons the overall atmosphere in cyberspace.

It is widely believed that trolling is encouraged by anonymity. Behind their masks, some sad individuals feel they can be abusive with impunity, creating one form of the so-called "online disinhibition effect".

Hence, the Government is going to require all commenters on its Reach website to register. The chairman of the feedback arm, Dr Amy Khor, has stated that it will implement Facebook log-ins starting from Dec 12.

The move has naturally prompted the question of whether this is a precursor of a wider push-back against the trolls. Could the Government be thinking of requiring other websites to impose similar rules for their own forums and comments sections?

On Friday, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam, speaking at the Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, said he did not think the PM was saying that everyone has to do it.

But he made the Government's preference clear. Nobody should feel uncomfortable using their real names when expressing their views on political and social issues, he said. Only irresponsible speakers would want to hide behind anonymity. "I can imagine that they will be uncomfortable if they want to talk, say untruths, if they want to bully, if they want to, as often happens, distort the truth," he said.

The debate on anonymity is a global one and certainly not new. In 2009, South Korea imposed a real-name policy for all websites after the suicide of an actress who had been bullied on the Internet. In 2011, the move was overturned when its supreme court ruled it unconstitutional. Hackers had also stolen 35 million Internet users' national identification numbers, which they had been required to provide when logging onto sites.

While national legislation would be too fraught with problems, there is a worldwide trend among individual sites to move away from anonymity. Most recently, Huffington Post decided to ban anonymity. It said that around 75 per cent of its comments had to be deleted because they were too awful to publish. They get an average of 25,000 comments an hour and have 40 moderators.

When forums get inundated with trash, it doesn't just make it harder for readers to find worthwhile comments. More seriously, such comments may disappear entirely because reasonable people stop contributing. Paradoxically, therefore, evicting the trolls can help free speech by making the space more conducive for genuine participation.

"When people start getting mean or rude, people start closing their minds," says Professor Arthur D. Santana of the University of Houston, according to Poynter.org, the website of the Poynter Institute in Florida. "So simply by extension of that a civil conversation is one where people remain open to ideas."

Prof Santana studied online comments on American newspaper sites, comparing those that allowed anonymity with those that did not. He grouped the comments into three categories: uncivil, civil and forceful - strong stuff but without hateful language. He found that at newspapers that allowed anonymity, 53 per cent of the comments were uncivil compared with just 29 per cent on sites that insisted on real names or Facebook log-ins.

Despite such findings, most experts say there is a need for some spaces to allow anonymity. Online anonymity helped political activists in the Arab Spring. Company whistle-blowers require anonymity as well. Similarly, someone who is a target of bullying would obviously be fearful of further attacks if he came out openly against it. Children and young people wanting to discuss issues in a safe space are another group that requires anonymity. So it is not true that only irresponsible speakers need to hide their real identities.

Ultimately, website owners should be given the freedom to decide how best to manage their forums and comments sections. Most site owners - including independent sociopolitical blogs as well as mainstream news organisations - share a concern about trolling, since it makes their sites less effective and appealing. For this reason, several blogs and news sites already use various forms of registration.

There is no single approach that will suit all sites. Different sites have different missions and audiences. Besides, these efforts are still at an experimental stage. Sites, including straitstimes.com, are trying to find the right balance between encouraging better quality participation and being as open as possible to all comers, including those who have good reasons for remaining anonymous.

The Government's proposed new harassment laws to address online and offline bullying are a more effective way to address the most extreme forms of trolling. But the bulk of the problem is something that individual websites should be left to tackle voluntarily and creatively - on their own.


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