August 28, 2008
The Growing Cowardice of Online Anonymity Letter From America
By Richard Bernstein
Anonymous sources are of course among the newspaper reporter's best friends, without whom the cause of informing the public would be severely set back.
Or that, at any rate, is the impression that some recent reporting on the rising vogue of college gossip Web sites would indicate.
One site, called JuicyCampus.com, which maintains message boards on 59 university campuses, has been attracting special attention. As a recent article in Radar Magazine put it, JuicyCampus.com is "a virtual bathroom wall upon which college students across the country scrawl slurs, smears, and secrets, true or otherwise, about their classmates."
In one feature, to take one modest example, the site asked for replies to the question: Who are the sluttiest girls at Cornell? As of this week, there were 47 postings in response, several of which gave names, apparently real ones.
All of the postings, needless to say, were anonymous, and that would appear to be the main point. It's bad enough to tarnish reputations and to publish insults, but if the people doing so identify themselves, there is at least a possibility of censure and accountability.
But the Internet not only makes the anonymous pejorative possible, it also bestows a certain techno glamour to what ought to be a guilty snicker. "C'mon, give us the juice," JuicyCampus.com says on its home page. "Posts are totally, 100 percent anonymous."
To be sure, there are often good reasons for anonymity: an employee of a corporation who uses a company intranet site to criticize senior management or to expose misbehavior at the top could fear for his job if he had to provide his name. In the news business, anonymous sources are ethically tricky, and the better papers handle them with care. But sources are commonly promised anonymity in exchange for information that would otherwise be kept secret.
But what the Internet and its cult of anonymity do is to provide a blanket sort of immunity for anybody who wants to say anything about anybody else, and it would be difficult in this sense to think of a more morally deformed exploitation of the concept of free speech.
An illustration, admittedly personal: Some time ago, I complained to Amazon.com about reviews posted on its site that offered what I felt were viciously negative and factually incorrect views of a book I had written.
Anybody of course is entitled to say what he or she wants about a book, including one written by me. It's the anonymity that Amazon grants to its reader-reviewers that I objected to, on the grounds that anybody who wants to say something nasty about somebody else's work ought to have the little bit of bravery needed to say it under his or her name.
When I wrote an e-mail to that effect to Jeffrey Bezos, Amazon's head and founder, I received a reply from Amazon's customer relations department saying that it allowed anonymous reviews as a way to encourage discussion. My reply was that, under the guise of encouraging free expression and unhindered debate, Amazon was really encouraging cowardice instead.
At the time I earned my living as a book critic for The New York Times, which, needless to say, did not allow me to hide behind a shield of anonymity in my own reviews. If I did have negative opinions about a book - and I often did - I could be held responsible if, in fact, my opinion was unjustified or unfair, or if I was avenging myself against someone who had once written negatively about me.
Amazon's reader reviews are an old story. What is more recent is the Internet's encouragement not just of scandalous and malignant personal commentary but racist remarks of the sort that have for years been branded outside the scope of acceptable discourse.
Reading JuicyCampus.com, for example, I found this remark, anonymous of course: "Are there any black guys who aren't dumb jocks?"
There was much worse stuff along these lines, unprintable here even if only to illustrate how the grant of anonymity can lead to the regression of public discourse. It almost makes one nostalgic for the days when people who uttered racist slurs were all too happy to identify themselves.
Concerned about the effect of JuicyCampus.com, prosecutors in New Jersey have lately been investigating the site for consumer fraud - on the grounds that it promises in its terms and conditions that no offensive content will be allowed on the site even while it conspicuously provides no enforcement of that promise.
In fact, to get JuicyCampus on the grounds of consumer fraud would be a bit like the feds getting the gangster Al Capone on tax evasion. But the law does make it very hard to hold Web sites legally accountable, even for libelous opinions. This is because the U.S. government's Communications Decency Act grants immunity to Web site operators for false or slanderous information they publish when that information has been provided by third parties.
In other words, the law would seem to contain its own sort of Catch-22: the Web site itself can't be held legally responsible for defamatory statements, but neither can anybody else, since the defamatory opinion was expressed anonymously.
There have been other illustrations of the use of anonymity in recent years of questionable moral value. One was the decision of the publisher Random House a few years ago to publish the novel "Primary Colors," the best-selling satire of Bill Clinton, by "Anonymous." It was a brilliant marketing ploy, the suggestion being that the author was an administration insider who could be harmed if his identity were known.
In fact, as it turned out, the book was written by Joe Klein, a very talented and worthy political journalist but one whose well- being did not require that his identity remain secret.
But that was in the days when there was a certain assumption that people who were anonymous needed to be so for some reason. Now that the Internet has made anonymity almost standard, it's unlikely that anybody would make that assumption anymore.
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Tomorrow: Anand Giridharadas on India's creative compromises with modernity.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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