This past summer Arianna Huffington announced that the Huffington Post planned to end anonymous commenting on its sites – a policy that apparently went into full effect yesterday given the significant drop in comments.
Huffington said she has decided there are too many “trolls” using the site who hide behind anonymity to make violent or offensive comments, and that she believes people should “stand up for what they say.” To that end, The Huffington Post is now requiring that all users – old and new – connect their HP accounts to a verified Facebook profile. Verified in Facebook means that a user has to share their cell phone number with Facebook – which Facebook will then use to send a text message back to the user with a code for verification.
First of all, I highly doubt that Arianna Huffington ever personally reads the comments section of HP in order to be able to assess that it is being trolled by people leaving violent and/or offensive messages.
Secondly, The Huffington Post already has comment moderation in effect whereby so called “violent” and “offensive” comments – and in most cases controversial ones – do not get approved. In fact, one of the biggest issues with HP commenting is the extensive moderating and censorship that goes on – more so than on any other site I have encountered – to the point where often comments put on the site percolate in the queue for so long that no real conversation can take place, because by the time your comment gets approved, it is buried underneath 800 new comments that have since posted.
Therefore, it is quite frankly unclear to me what Huffington means when she says that getting rid of anonymous commenting would eliminate “violent” and “offensive” comments. I thought they were already being eliminated through extensive comment moderation/censorship.
Gross Privacy Violation Coupled With Data Mining
The official reason for doing this, namely to promote civility and accountability to the experience of commenting at HP, appears to be nothing but a smokescreen, a front, a euphemism for what is really going on here, namely a gross violation of peoples’ privacy to gain access to and mine their personal data in order to sell them things – in collaboration with Facebook – the masters of data mining and advertising.
HP, of course, states that linking one’s HP account to a verified Facebook account would still “keep privacy tight” but that is not only not true (their privacy disclosure clearly states that HP would have access to a person’s Facebook profile, email, friends’ list and information, even interests etc. and a court order could easily request even more) but if that were truly the case, then why require connecting HP to a verified Facebook account at all? Why wouldn’t a regular FB account do? Why the verification? Why this extra step?
Why does HP need access to a person’s Facebook profile, name, friends’ list, email – even interests and a host of other private things? That is going entirely too far. This has nothing to do with civility.
Arianna Huffington is clearly looking for a way to get on the cash cow that is Facebook and start profiting through advertisements by having access to peoples’ very personal information. Why does The Huffington Post need to know what a person’s interests are and who their friends are in order to maintain civility and polite discourse on their forums? Peoples’ Facebook accounts are for their friends and family only, not to be used by Arianna Huffington to make more money.
Additionally, HP’s new commenting policy makes having both a Facebook account and a cell phone number a requirement for participating in the HP community – which should never be the case. People should not feel obliged to sign up for a particular kind of service, such as Facebook – that carries with itself a host of other privacy violations – including targeted advertising based on your web-browsing that FB logs – just to comment on some news site. Some people also do not have cell phones, or do not like cell phones and/or do not have text messaging. Requiring that they possess all those technological capabilities in order to leave a lousy comment on HP is ludicrous. And I mean let’s face it, this is The Huffington Post – where 75% of its contents are lifestyle and entertainment. This isn’t some high end intellectual epistemic community that needs to identify its commentators to remain credible.
At any rate, requiring verification by connecting cell phone numbers that require a person’s government issued name and social security numbers for activation – with Facebook accounts and then, by extension, with Huffington Post accounts is just about as deep down the privacy and identity rabbit hole as it goes. Even George Orwell would be impressed. It would not be too difficult, in such a case, to track back the comments of an individual to their name, address and social security number if need be.
The NSA doesn’t need to spy on people anymore – looks like they can now just request the data straight from Facebook and/or The Huffington Post during one easy data dump/transfer.
But let us assume good faith here and that Huffington’s real reason for this change in commenting policy is genuine concern (it is not). Such an assertion assumes that there is no value in anonymity and anonymous posting, which is not true.
Value and Safety in Anonymity
Politics is fundamentally about settling disputes and as such it puts winners and losers in unique positions to avenge themselves against each other. Protecting the political privacy of ordinary citizens has always been an issue and in a true democracy, the secret ballot is the simplest and most widespread measure to ensure that political views are not known to anyone other than the voter—it is nearly universal in modern democracy, and considered a basic right of citizenship. Even where other rights of privacy do not exist, this type of privacy very often does.
Secrecy at the polls is crucial because it insures that individuals can not only cast votes sincerely but also, and thus most importantly, without fear of persecution and retribution of any kind.
In the legislative realm, for example, Representatives are supposed to serve citizens without regard to how they voted in the most recent election—something which would seem impossible if it was easy to look up an individual’s vote.
In practical, every day terms, a lot of people would potentially face persecution – formal or informal – from retribution by employers in the form of discrimination and mistreatment at the work place, to denial of services by third parties to a host of other adverse consequences – if their political views at the polls were not anonymous.
The same goes for political views expressed in online forums and commenting sections of news sites, especially in the internet age where employers and other interested parties can look up individuals before giving them a job or granting them a loan or render a wide variety of services.
People have enough to worry about when it comes to image crafting. This world can be a judgmental place. People are worried – and rightly so – that even good opinions can hurt them, should a person in authority (a school administrator, a prospective employer) take offence. While Arianna Huffington can demand “accountability” from her readers, is Ms. Huffington going to hold the rest of society accountable, when her readers’ comments become grounds for tearing up a resume for a serious, but “PR-unfriendly”, stance? I don’t think so.
When people see that they can express their political views and opinions without their colleague, boss, manager, neighbor, landlord, phone company, Facebook and government knowing about it – black on white – connected to their social security numbers no less, then they are more likely to express their honest opinion. In turn, this leads to more honest discussions as opposed to the kind of censored, mutilated, insincere debates that take place between people who realize that there is a cost associated with making one’s political views known and transparent to the world.
When it comes to political discourse, therefore, anonymity is not only crucial but it also carries value and is of utmost importance for the functioning of a democracy. Moreover, it serves to protect those who potentially face adverse consequences based on their political views. Finally, the quality of posts and comments and with it discourse will suffer as well, because of the diversity of opinion that anonymous posting offers.
Therefore, even if “civility” and “accountability” was the real reason for why HP was getting rid of anonymous commenting, overall and in terms of allowing for honest, sincere discourse, such an approach is more likely to backfire because not only would there not be honest discourse but there is a real, legitimate reason for people to not want to post with their identities fully disclosed.
Someone should have briefed Ms Huffington that the internet is not just full of people who post violent and offensive things offending her delicate sensitives, but that it is also used by some of those same people to stalk, hurt and threaten those whose political, social, and religious views they do not agree with. By getting rid of anonymous commenting, HP is rendering a host of people vulnerable to such threats.
I cannot even begin to describe how truly harmful, detrimental and problematic it is if everyone in the internet-verse is required to adhere to such steps and disclose so much personal information in order to be able to participate on the internet through its various forums and outlets. It exploits people, it exploits their privacy, it makes them vulnerable to a host of adverse factors and it leads to the kind of police state mentality whereby every inch of a person’s being is monitored by Big Brother, in cooperation with private entities, for the “security of the state” and “welfare and safety of the people.” A brave new world, indeed.