Partially Lamenting the Decline of Anonymous Commenting

Posted on August 22, 2011

Something makes me feel a bit rueful about Ben Smith’s decision to change his blog’s commenting policy. Now, everyone who wishes to participate must sign in with a Facebook profile — eliminating much of the freewheelin’ anonymity that helped make its comment section so interesting and, just as often, exhausting to read.

I think it makes a lot of sense to do away with anonymity, at least from the standpoint of someone who would like to maintain a basically civilized atmosphere on his or her blog. If you’ve ever briefly scanned a comment section like Ben’s, you know that anonymity often encourages commenters to be shockingly cruel to one another; to vent inchoate rage, draw hastily thought-out conclusions, and sometimes even communicate entirely in capital letters. It’s a scary world, one made possible by users’ assumption that nothing said there, no matter how hurtful, tendentious, or factually incorrect, will be attached to their true identities (leaving aside, for the moment, that comments can be traced in extreme circumstances). So, people are free to viciously lambaste one another on a regular basis, knowing they’ll never be held accountable for what they say.

As a result, many comments on political blogs are simply vile, and getting rid of them is a pleasant aesthetic improvement. Yet, for those of us interested in how peoples’ minds work, there is something regrettable about losing the anonymous public comment.

When reputations are at stake, we sometimes feel compelled to conceal our sincerely held opinions — especially when we believe those opinions will conflict with dominant social sentiment. So people routinely lie to pollsters about things like their rates of church attendance, their views on gay marriage, their likelihood to support a black candidate for elected office, and so on. It is very difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on matters that people are embarrassed to discuss honestly.

So these comments — which I’ve found to be largely right-wing, though I’m sure there are many exceptions — are fascinating and revealing insofar as they provide insight into the psyche of people whose angst we’d otherwise have no access to. Take, for example, the popular meme that Barack Obama is in the process of systematically relegating white people in America to second-class status. Many believe this meme whole-heartedly, so it makes sense to understand why.

Check out this Washington Times editorial, titled “Obama: Whites Need Not Apply,” which is itself pretty confounding to read. But more importantly, I think, the comments are very illuminating. Here are a few I caught on my first go-around:

“white are now second class to blacks go figure. When will all white people wake up to this crap before it is to late. impeach obama now”

Another…

Obama is a racist twerp. He does not realize the irony that the WHOLE USA was made by White people, while all those “Diverse backgrounds” have done nothing but protest against whites. look at malcolm x. Obama has lost my vote

Aaaand another…

I walked into a government office in Phoenix and the only white person in the whole department was the department head.

Every other person who worked there was Indian or black.

I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut and obey, but I won’t.

I’m paying for it.

We’ll have change in 2012, all right.

We’ll change out this administration.

The Washington Times has removed many comments which were presumably much worse, so these are all relatively tame. But they’re still very instructive in understanding what drives right-wing resentment on racial issues. If anonymity were eliminated tonight, the people who leave these comments would still exist — we’d just have been denied a chance to read their inner-thoughts. This would be a bad thing, because as much as we might not want to admit it, views of this kind are very prevalent — at least enough to warrant our consideration.

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