My former colleague and fellow blogger Denis Welch devoted his weekly media slot on National Radio’s Nine to Noon yesterday to the blogosphere – or more precisely, to the ugly, abusive tone of much of the comment posted on blogs.
Host Lynn Freeman, sitting in for Kathryn Ryan, volunteered that it really bugged her that so much of this rancid comment was anonymous. “It’s so gutless,” she said. “I despise it.”
Damned right, Lynn. I believe that if an opinion is worth expressing, it’s worth putting your name to.
When the opinion expressed is innocuous or benign, it may not matter too much. But when someone is viciously attacking someone else personally, as is so often the case, they should have the courage to step out into the light where they can be seen.
Of course the very reason so much blog comment is toxic is that the perpetrators are able to hide behind pseudonyms. If they were required to own up to their outbursts, these contemptible fleas would quickly vanish. Anonymity makes them brave.
Newspapers stopped accepting pseudonyms on letters to the editor a long time ago. (The Dominion was one of the first, in 1975.) Not only did this greatly reduce the risk of newspapers unwittingly publishing malicious letters, but the quality of correspondence improved overnight. No surprises there, since people who are prepared to be held accountable for their opinions are naturally more likely to think carefully about what they say and whether it can be justified.
Even talkback radio, though nominally anonymous, places a check on malicious and venomous callers by the mere fact that someone may recognise their voices. And if that’s not enough, content is moderated by a host who has a seven-second delay and a dump button in case things get out of hand.
The blogosphere, in contrast, is almost completely unrestrained. In Denis Welch’s words, it’s a Wild West.
There’s an argument that the anything-goes nature of the blogosphere is an essential part of its appeal; that anonymity is essential for free and unrestrained debate. This is a feeble excuse for gratuitous, juvenile name-calling. Transparency and openness don’t stifle free debate; they simply mean that it’s conducted in a civil, mature and honest way.
There is a narrow range of circumstances that justify anonymity. The whistle-blower drawing public attention to incompetence or corruption in government, at risk to his/her career, is an obvious example; likewise, the confidential source who gives information to the news media on a matter of public interest. But these defences don’t apply to the cowardly, splenetic ranters who infest the blogosphere. They’re a disgrace to free speech.