Wednesday 30 June 2010

'Inside the mind of the anonymous online poster'

Boston Globe Magazine journalist Neil Swidey has written an article Inside the mind of the anonymous online poster which looks at the issues surrounding abusive postings and whether people should only be able to comment on news websites if they give their real names.
The starting point for the article is the amount of abusive postings the Globe received after reporting that President Obama's aunt had been allowed to stay in the US.
Swidey writes: "The raging commentary on Obama’s aunt is a microcosm of the thorny problem many websites are grappling with right now over what to do with anonymous comments...Given their anonymous nature and anything-goes ethos, these forums can sometimes feel as ungovernable as the tribal lands of Pakistan."
He adds: "Newspapers find themselves in a strange position. People wanting to have a letter to the editor printed in the paper have long been required to provide their name, address, and a daytime phone number. Yet on the websites owned by these same newspapers, all it usually takes to be handed a perpetual soapbox is an active e-mail address."
Swidey notes: "Many media heavyweights, from The Washington Post to The Huffington Post, have begun to modify their policies. The goal is to take the playground back from anonymous bullies and give greater weight to those willing to offer, in addition to strong views, their real names."
For the article, Swidey tracks down and interviews some of the Globe's frequent anonymous posters like Xenophonic who "has no wife, no children, and a job requiring just 20 hours a week. He doesn’t follow sports, doesn’t hang out at bars or go on many trips beyond the occasional visit to play the slots at Twin River, and isn’t involved in any organizations to speak of. But he is extremely active in his community. It just happens to be one that only exists online."
There is also Yoshimi25, who has attracted ugly anti-Asian slurs online, but turns out to be a blue-eyed Irish-American named Kelly.
The article refers to a plan by new-media strategist Steve Yelvington who is working with Morris Publishing Group, and pushing the Morris sites to insist on collecting (but not publishing) real names and street addresses for everyone who comments, yet allow users to continue to post under pseudonyms.
But Swidey concludes: "While news organizations debate scrapping anonymity, the ground may be shifting beneath them. With all of our identifying information getting sliced, diced, and sold, by everyone from credit card companies to Facebook, is there really such a thing as the anonymous Web anymore? Consider this demonstration from the late ’90s by Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Latanya Sweeney. She took three commonly available data points: sex (male), ZIP code (02138), and date of birth (July 31, 1945). Those seemingly anonymous attributes could have described lots of people, right? Actually, no. She proved they could belong to just one person: former governor William Weld. She tells me that 87 percent of Americans can now be identified with just these three data points. Maybe the best approach to getting people to behave better online is just reminding them how easy it is to figure out who they really are."

* I recently did a piece on moves by the Independent and The Times' to stop anonymous postings for InPublishing:Ending the online free speech free-for-all

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