Internet anonymity is fueling our civility war
Even after authorities caught Cesar Sayoc, the Trump-loving, Democrat-hating mail bomber, the internet continued blowing up with crazy, vicious comments — courageously posted anonymously — blaming Democrats and their ilk.
Among the least reprehensible posts on Breibart.com was this from “Jimi Headstone”:
“At least we know now that every disturbed individual isn’t a demoRat. There is always that .1% exception. and besides, it might turn out that this guy is a mole planted and nurtured by the Rats years ago. Probably not, but I don’t put anything by them.
“I’ve seen some screen shots indicating he was a registered Rat at some point, and something like 90% of criminals are Rat sympathizers as well. Then there is that weird van with the perfect stickers that no normal person would even put on to express his political opinions. How did that last for months in Florida without being defaced.?”
Who is “Jimi” and what’s his real name?
Jimi doesn’t say.
But let me ask with all due respect: If Jimi feels so strongly about his truth, why doesn’t he have the courage, if not the common decency, to sign his real name?
Why does Jimi hide behind a fake name? What is Jimi afraid of? Why can’t Jimi stand behind what he believes?
Not to single out Jimi. There are millions of Jimi-types out there madly pounding the keyboard with angry, hateful and unfounded conspiracy thoughts. Often unbeknownst to employers, family, friends and neighbors who might be shocked, disgusted or even fearful to hear their unhinged rants.
Our actual patriots — versus today’s internet “patriots” — literally risked their lives to sign their names to their beliefs.
They used goose-molted feather quill pens dipped in indelible ink to sign a provocative post they titled, The Declaration of Independence. Posting it literally was an act of treason against the British government that methodically enumerated — with clear logic and correct spelling, punctuation and use of caps — why King George III was a bad dictator who deserved a pox upon him.
After leading the radical opposition and fomenting revolution with his viral post, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry led Virginia’s army into battle against the British. “Patrick Henry” was not an avatar with strong opinions who stirred up trouble from the safety of home.
Why does Jimi hide? He might respond: The fascist Liberals attack true American patriots for courageously speaking their minds because the libs want to destroy our country. I can’t reveal my identity because I don’t want them coming to take my guns, which I need to prevent them from taking my guns. Also, I might lose my job, not to mention frighten friends, family and neighbors.
I feel bad if Jimi is afraid to use his real name. If I posted anonymously, here’s a name I would use: Keyboard Chickenhawk.
As often is said, the internet was supposed to unleash free speech and fuel democracy at home and around the world.
Internet anonymity indeed has given safe voice to long-subjugated people who can tell the world their story as they fight for freedom.
But here in America, we have the luxury to use the internet to abuse our speech freedom and let our anonymous comments drive division and undermine our democracy, public discourse and common respect for different views that we need to self-govern.
Online anonymity has released our collective id from our ego, setting our animal spirits free from rationality and social accountability.
Virtually daily we have another internet “firestorm” as comments posted under clever pseudonyms and fantasy avatars spread pathologically racist, bigoted, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist and nativist smears, lies, rumors, conspiracy theories, disinformation and misinformation. With little regard for truth or shame, and often without personal experience or original thought but simply parroting favored news and information sources.
Sometimes we post just for the fun of provocation. Then we love when the provoked react, escalating the fight. From there things ratchet out of control, each side determined to “own” the other and declaring “victory” if it posts the last most provocative word.
But with internet anonymity, it’s hard to tell who is posting and why: Is Jimi real, a true citizen patriot trying to make America great again? Or is Jimi fake, Russian troll or bot seeking to provoke, divide and undermine America?
Either way, I worry it’s just a matter of time before the uncivil war of words raging on the internet — fueled by anonymity — erupts into a real civil war in America.
Nah, many argue, relax: Anonymous internet comments are healthy free speech.
Anonymity in fact promotes democracy. It lets the populi express its honest, unfiltered vox, provides a richer sense of what the populi is really thinking, and lets people blow off steam without hurting anyone. Sticks and stones, etc.
The social media site Gab, which calls itself “the free speech social network” and was used by Pittsburgh synagogue bomber Robert Bowers to anonymously post anti-Jewish hate and threats, slammed critics of its no-rules policy that permits hate speech.
“Gab.com is under attack,” the site posted after the shooting. “We have been systematically no-platformed [and] smeared by the mainstream media for defending free expression and individual liberty for all people.”
Conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt scoffs that hate speech promotes hate actions, and even if so, we should punish the crime not the cause. “There is a vast chasm between the menacing and the enthusiastic,” he wrote in the Washington Post on Oct. 29. “Chants are not chases; hurled insults are not hurled rocks. Obscuring the difference is a ham-handed attempt at silencing opposition.”
Indeed, the Supreme Court reaffirmed last year that the First Amendment protects hate speech. With a big caveat, however: if the hate speech is intended to cause lawless action, and it does, then it can be a crime.
Forgive me, but it’s hard to believe that when the President of the United States repeatedly uses the bully pulpit to whip up angry rally crowds and inspire keyboard cowards, that some nut job isn’t going to take lawless action.
It goes without saying this was tragically demonstrated by the #MAGAbomber and synagogue shooter; Charlottesville “Unite the Right” murderer James Alex Fields, Jr., and Jacob Goodwin who “came for battle” dressed in headgear, goggles and a shield and brutally beat DeAndre Harris; the violent neo-Nazi white supremacist Proud Boys and skinheads, et. al.
Hewitt and the right wing blame Maxine Waters, Eric Holder, the Clintons, Hollywood, the mainstream media, et. al, for inciting left-wing nut jobs to confront Trump and Republican officials, spur Antifa to violence, and lead James Hodgkinson to shoot up the Congressional softball game.
But as Trump has said — he’s the president. He and his GOP run America. He has the power. The liberals do not.
In any case, if it’s agreed that hate speech can cause hate action, how can we ratchet down the angry rhetoric before more nut jobs hurt more innocent people? Certainly hoping the president and his keyboard army will ease up is foolish.
Maybe a little sunshine, a little online transparency, could help?
It’s obvious and tested: People will say mean things behind the mask of anonymity they would never say to anyone’s face.
Much is written about how the internet dehumanizes us.
When most people are face to face, they try to discuss their differences and either seek common ground and understanding, or agree to disagree and let it go.
In many cases when online trolls are invited to meet or engage their targets personally, they back down and even apologize. “It’s just jibber-jabber,” a troll of comedian Chris Gethard explained to him when they met. “You just get out there, you say things, you talk, and no one’s listening.”
When Kramer finally met his hated cable guy, they hugged it out. When the Great and Terrible Oz was revealed behind the curtain, he became human, even charmingly pathetic. When people come out from behind their internet curtains, humanity triumphs and civility ensues.
How can we bring more humanity and civility to the internet?
If comment posters won’t voluntarily sign their real names, internet sites should require it.
Naïve? Nope. Facebook and Twitter require posting by name, even if trolls and bots find workarounds. As for traditional media, the Wall Street Journal explicitly requires comments to be posted under real names, including first and last.
Newspapers always require letters to the editor to be signed and verified with address and phone number.
Online, however, The Washington Post and The New York Times allow a stage name (though you need an account that does have your real name). CNN, Fox, and indeed most of the media with online sites and comments sections don’t require disclosure. Why?
The New York Times says, “We understand that many readers do not wish to be publicly identified, and we support your desire to protect your privacy.”
The Washington Post says, “We recognize there are legitimate reasons to use a pseudonym to protect your privacy but using a version of your real name can help lend credibility to your comments.”
A cursory look at the CNN, MSNBC, Fox, Breitbart and other leading media sites, while they have rules, don’t even explain their allowance for anonymity. It seems a given too obvious to mention.
“Falsehood is cowardice, the truth courage.”
So said the 19th century American Universalist clergyman and theological writer Hosea Ballou — a leading advocate for a loving versus wrathful God.
Ballou also thought, “The human heart is capable of becoming soft, or hard; kind, or unkind; merciful or unmerciful, by education and habit.”
Call me soft of heart, but speaking our names as we speak our truth is one of the most courageous, honest and merciful thing we could do as Americans now.
That is, if we want to give Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” a chance to wind down this uncivil internet war, and heal our nation before it leads to more real violence.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.