Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hiding Behind Anonymity

In earlier times, such as 18th-century England, political censorship forced many writers to publish anonymously for fear of imprisonment. In the absence of freedom of speech, anyone who spoke out against the government was taking a dangerous risk, as were their publishers. Well, today, “Anonymous” is making a come-back, but for the most part these are not courageous political activists and revolutionaries. Anonymous comments have become the stock-in-trade of the ignorant, petty, and just plain vicious – people who are ashamed to be associated with their own stupid or hateful comments.

All you have to do is read the “Comments” section online on your local newspaper, on blogs, or other websites. I never worried too much about this until recently, when I was targeted through this blog by a couple of losers who are unwilling to own up to their own comments by using their real names.

Initially they were just taunting me for a comment I made at a film screening; these comments were posted on my February 27 blog post on “True/False Film Festival 2010.”
I responded to their comments in my March 2 post on the film Colony (“Why I Didn’t Like Colony”), and received more negative comments which are posted there.

But what is not visible on my blog is additional comments that I received from “partoftheprecipitate” and “doublewordscore.” After those obnoxious comments that got posted, I had to take the unprecedented (for me) step of moderating comments. I received two more messages from “doublewordscore” and one from “partoftheprecipitate,” all highly insulting, and attacking my work as an educator.

Now this harassment wouldn’t be so alarming if, A, the cyber-attacks hadn’t continued over a period of several days rather than just a one-off incident; and, B, if these people weren’t hiding their identities. Someone suggested to me they were former students of mine. As far as I’m concerned this is no trivial matter. You really have to wonder about the psychological and emotional stability of someone who carries a grudge against a professor years after having taken a class in which the student got a grade he or she didn’t like. Given all the violence on college, university and high school campuses, from Columbine to Virginia Tech, our so-called “ivory tower” is anything but.

When folks are leaving anonymous comments on websites, it’s impossible for readers to know if they are just idiots blowing off steam, or if there’s actually a violent intent. Here’s an example: a wonderful woman, whom I knew personally, was murdered by her ex-husband over Thanksgiving; her two teen-age daughters and her grandmother were also slain by this misogynistic lunatic.

The husband / murderer, Kraig Kahler, was fired from his job with the City of Columbia in September, less than three months before he killed four members of his family. You should read the comments that were posted on the Columbia Daily Tribune’s website when the story of his firing was published – but you’d better have a strong stomach.
The vast majority of comments are verbally abusive to his wife and overly sympathetic to husband, seeing him as persecuted. Comments degenerated into wild and unfounded speculation about Karen Kahler’s character and behavior – comments posted by people who never even met her. Here are some examples:

Someone named “taylor100” wrote,

“Yes, we are still ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room due to the censorship our our comments. Let's see, she was well taken care of, had three great well adjusted kids, happily married for 25 years, and then she decides to try something new. Yes, this whole situation has been brought on due to her selfishness.

“Mr. Kahler was trying to save the marriage and the family and now they are all going to suffer for years to come. Eventually the truth will come out and everyone will understand. I will probably be censored again just like RationalThought.”

Then “detoito” responded with this:

“You spend your whole life building this career, and your angry wife claims you touched her against her will (Her words, not mine), and you are fired. It is going to be hard enough for Mr. Kahler to find anything in his field of expertise as it is, but to add being fired to the list would make it next to impossible.

“I think he chose the lesser of two evils.”

Someone named “crighton” wrote:

“Oh and by the way, the original arrest was just a setup. She was playing hardball with her attorney so she could get the most out of the divorce. Happens all of the time to good people.

Then there’s “fay_mccollom” who wrote:

“it was a bearhug and not a 'hit'. Its women like her that lose credibility for all true victims.”

All told there were 70 reader comments on this article (about a dozen of which were actually deleted by Tribune staff for being over-the-top offensive), the majority of them supporting Kraig – the eventual mass-murderer. Rumors I’ve heard (and suggested in the Tribune’s Comments section) suggest that Kraig himself was the author of many of those comments bashing his wife. After the murders happened, the Tribune reported on Kraig’s internet stalking of his wife.

I wonder, if people leaving comments on the Tribune’s page were required to give their real names, would there be even one-tenth of the irresponsible posting that we see nowadays?

1 comment:

David H. Finke said...

I am truly grateful that Elizabeth has raised, pursued, and documented the seriousness of this problem. Although I "met" her in the Greever-Rice campaign (and am not sure we would recognize each other in person,) I found my way to this blog via her participation in a FaceBook group against comments on articles (different from blogs or fora) in the Columbia Tribune. I read back a ways to see how the issue has started, last summer, and am curious to know whether any progress has been made -- or modifications noted of policies at the Trib -- since that time.

Maybe its because I'm a Quaker -- a group that always had a high, possibly overly-scrupulous, regard for Truth; possibly its because of the Quaker "testimony" against "secret societies"... In any case, I have a strong revulsion against anonymity in writing, unless a special case can be made. I have seen Letters to the Editors over the years where it said, parenthetically, "Name Withheld By Request," and presumably an editor made a judgment that this request was justified. We can think of a number of possible good reasons for such a request. Most writers, however, don't require a Witness Protection Program.

I heartily believe that the prevalence of anonymous comments and blogs has become a curse. I felt this way back in the days of "BBSs" -- bulletin board systems, when computers & modems were just starting out -- and I resisted using a "Handle"... a carryover from the Citizens Band radio culture. There were some teenagers with testosterone poisoning that made outrageous remarks that I just know they would not have said to my face.

I feel it's a basic matter of integrity that people who have an opinion and express it in public should be required to be identified and then stand behind it. Anything else strikes me as scurrilous or cowardly (special circumstances excepted.)

Especially in this time of an Obama Administration being viciously attacked by those who tread on the edge of (and in my view implicitly encourage) vile and violent acts, we must look with serious concern at what language is doing to degrade and poison the public discourse. (I trust that readers here have seen enough of this to know what I'm talking about -- examples on request.) Hiding behind the cloak of anonymity is something that allows much of this to happen.

Let's keep sharing ideas as to how this can be combatted -- especially in terms of demanding accountability and responsibility from the journalistic profession to encourage civil discourse in a civic society. Really now: why should there ever be a perceived sense of obligation to provide a soapbox to those consumed with hatred and villification?

"Freedom of the press is assured to those who own one" (A.J. Liebling) -- the answer to those who are afraid that exercise of a blue pencil by a responsible editor somehow equates to "censorship" as practiced by totalitarian regimes. I am, in fact, a staunch civil libertarian (and proud ACLU member) when it comes to people's right to say stupid, ignorant, hateful, even filthy things. It's just that others have no obligation to help them spread their nonsense.

Are you listening, Jim Robertson?

Happy to sign my name,
David Hadley Finke
Columbia, Missouri