Nov 142010
anonymous comments from online trolls damage the net

Australian union leader Paul Howes today claimed in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph that New Media is denigrating politicians. His point being anonymous users on newspaper websites (such as the one he writes for) and online services like Twitter encourage abuse and slander which is degenerating politics and media discussion.

The rough and tumble of the Internet was raised during the Canberra Media140 conference last September where conversation turned around Liberal politician Joe Hockey’s comment that anonymous, banal tweets was causing him to lose faith in online services like Twitter.

Media140 provided more discussion about anonymity when The Australian decided to out the anonymous blogger Grogs Gamut, aka Greg Jericho. Greg wasn’t being abusive however his commentary had clearly found its way under the skin of some members of the Canberra political classes.

But does anonymity matter?  We are kidding ourselves if we believe we are truly anonymous on the Internet. Few of us have the skills or diligence to fully hide our tracks from people we offend or upset.

Anonymity also discredits much of a person’s statements – as both Paul and Joe have pointed out, if you aren’t prepared to put your name to your views then there is a good argument that your opinions are really worthless.

However that argument ignores the power imbalance between the ordinary citizen who may find their career at risk by stating their views, as Greg Jericho found, and politicians and those working for political parties or allied organisations, like Joe and Paul who are protected by powerful and often tribally loyal party structures, PR machines and compliant journalists.

Probably the part that’s most disingenuous though about Paul Howes’ article is that anonymous Internet commenters are dragging politicians down. Sadly our politicians did that job themselves long before social media or web2.0 based websites came on the scene.

Today’s politicians are only reaping what they have sown themselves. Paul and Joe’s mentors – people like Graham Richardson, John Howard and Bob Carr – went out of their way to pander to and encourage the shrill, anonymous harridans of talkback radio.

Unfortunately for today’s politicians, the Internet doesn’t have the same gatekeepers in the form of friendly announcers, producers and editors to save them from the public’s genuine, unfiltered opinions.

The fact many of those anonymous comments – whether online or in more traditional media channels – may be true is another thing to consider; that people genuinely believe these politicians are doing the wrong thing. Rightly or wrongly, is that the fault of the Internet, or the fault of those politicians and their advisors who claim to have wonderful communication skills?

Internet anonymity is not perfect, and often not right, but the privilege of being able to make an anonymous statement is a fundamental part of a working democracy.

It’s not surprising our current generation of spin-doctored, on-message politicians feel threatened by a medium they struggle to understand or control, but that isn’t the fault of the anonymous online troll who could turn out to be what ultimately saves our democracy.

  4 Responses to “The end of the troll”

  1. Well said Paul. The online commentary can be confronting, and as Malcolm Turnbull said at Media140, netizens often let forth without really entertaining the thought that their target will read their messages. But seeking to deligitmise it, based on any particular characteristic – anonymity, disrespect, whatever – is not a sufficient or sustainable response. There are ways to engage with the valid criticism and moderate the rubbish (and even moderate the valid stuff – as you point out, power still flows both ways).

    For the time being I think we can empathise with public people who haven’t had to deal with this kind of barrage of viscerality before, but they will ultimately need to adapt. Harsh and hostlie real-time feedback on the web is legitimate and not about to go away.

    It just needs to be managed in certain places. The clever public figures are those who intervene minimally (e.g. in 2007 election Malcolm Turnbull was only politician not to delete negative comments from his blog and facebook page) and see ALL kinds of engagement not only as valid, but as opportunities to talk back and have discussions that never used to be had.

  2. Good post. I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s a lot less to do with ‘vicious attacks’ and a lot more to do with being able to spin their way out.

    I don’t agree personally with being anonymous nowadays. What I say is what I say, and it’s tied to my name for good or ill. I support the ability of others to be anonymous if they choose, though, and have previously made the point ( that this is important for such people as whistleblowers.

    Apologies for the linkage there – just feel it’s of relevance. Ultimately, as you say, online anonymity is not perfect, but I don’t think journalists, trade unionists, politicians, et al, should feel they have the right or ability to criticise it or worse – legislate against it.

  3. Some interesting comments. But I do think that the main thing that should matter when evaluating an opinion is the justification for it. Who wrote an opinion, and whether they are anonymous or not, should not have much importance at all. To judge the validity of an opinion on the basis of who wrote it, rather than on its own merits or otherwise, strikes me as being a little lazy.

  4. Depends what you mean by ‘anonymous’ – it seems to mean ‘outside the journosphere’

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