Anonymous comments are diabolical

Unless you follow the ins and outs of politics along the Bayou, you probably missed this week's resignation of Jim Letten, the longest-serving US attorney in the country.

Why did he resign? "Beginning last spring," the New York Times informs us, "a series of legal motions had revealed that Letten's senior prosecutors had been making provocative, even pugnacious comments about active criminal matters and other subjects under aliases at, the Web site of The Times-Picayune newspaper." Letten, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, was widely respected for his vigilance in rooting out public corruption.

That he was brought down by his staff's inability to resist joining Internet comment threads would hardly have surprised the journalists of a century ago, who fought for the right to sign their articles precisely to preserve the integrity of their words. They understood the dangers of anonymity. We have forgotten. Complaints about rudeness in the online world are hardly new, of course. But we are way past incivility now. Even making allowances for the inevitable trolls, comment threads have grown increasingly wild — so wild that legal consequences have begun to ensue.

Consider the contretemps that erupted this past summer, when a newspaper in Spokane, Wash., resisted demands that it identify the anonymous commentator who posted this unflattering reference to a Republican Party official in neighbouring Idaho: "Is that the missing $10,000 from Kootenai County Central Committee funds stuffed inside Tina's blouse?"

The newspaper was threatened with litigation. Its own staff was divided over whether protecting the identity (in practical terms, the IP address) of a commentater rose to the same ethical level as protecting the identity of the anonymous source for a story.

A confrontation was avoided when the person who posted the comment outed herself. But it's fair to ask whether she would have posted the insinuation had she known that her name would later be attached to it. There is something charmingly attractive about keeping one's identity secret while telling one's story to the world. The Supreme Court has rightly held that anonymous commentary is protected by the First Amendment. Whistle-blowers need protection against retaliation, as do those pushing unpopular political positions. During the heyday of the civil-rights movement, the ability to keep from public view the identity of members was considered a hallmark of the freedom of association. Alas, anonymity is not always pressed into the service of such noble ends. On the contrary: More and more, the online- comment thread seems diabolical — in the medieval sense of the word, as the devil's invention to bring out the worst in us.

Anne Ferry, in her classic article Anonymity: The Literary History of a Word, pointed out that terming a work "anonymous" gained popularity in the 16th century not as a way of hiding the writer's identity, but as a means of identifying works — poems especially — whose authorship was unknown. Anonymity, in other words, was not a means of protection; its use, rather, conveyed information. As newspapers and magazines rose to prominence in the 18th century, bylines as we know them today were largely avoided, creating the illusion that the publication spoke with a single voice. Still, the reader knew whose voice it was — the publisher's — and thus understood whose views were being reflected, and who was responsible for them. (Bloomberg News)


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