Vulgar and insulting comments fill many internet discussion boards and comment threads. Trolls seem to have nothing else to do except lurk online to make crude and insulting remarks. Logic is missing. Their language is designed to offend.
They can do this for one simple reason: they can post comments anonymously using monikers such as dweezle34 or billybob707. Netizens defend this as part of their right to “free speech.” And if anyone suggests it is wrong, much of the internet rises up to defend them, screaming “censorship.”
But speech has limitations. Most of us realize we cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And we accept restrictions and provide court remedy for speech that is slanderous (heard) or libelous (seen). And most of us agree that: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” But in earlier times we knew the speaker; you could see who was shouting from the podium. Hiding your identity is not part of “freedom of speech.” Newspapers and radio generally insist on knowing sources.
Today, the internet allows speakers to hide their identity, and this has led to irresponsible excesses.
Whole industries have grown up to serve targeted professionals; for a fee they will drive negative web entries low in search engine results.
The literary theorist and legal scholar, Stanley Fish, wrote a book titled: “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech...and It’s a Good Thing Too.” His discussion is fairly intellectual but he does help clarify this free speech fantasyland we live in. We do not really go about our lives saying anything that comes to our minds. We all choose to limit what we say, and as he states “it is a good thing, too.”
It is not the laws that keep us civil, but the consequences of our speech. Consider a college student who returns home and uses some of that offensive online language with a parent. That student may in turn find his packed suitcase out on the doorstep and the door closing behind them.
We can have freedom of speech but we are not free from its consequences.
That is what keeps society civil. We learn not to blurt out every momentary thought without considering whether it is accurate and reasonable. But because the internet separates a speaker’s identity from what is said, online language commonly soars to levels of incivility.
Oddly, I see more constructive but still critical internet commentary when I am in China. China’s government maintains a comment board on each high ranking official. Any online citizen can enter comments and read what others have said. The one requirement is that the senders’ identities are registered with the network Weibo. You might expect that this would prevent criticism, but it does not. When Premier Wen Jiaobao spoke on television in spring of 2012, he regretted that he had not been able to accomplish all that he attempted and that so many were dissatisfied with his performance. It was obvious that he had read the public comments.
Kansas senators and representatives ask for opinions, but the responses are hidden from us. We have absolutely no idea whether everyone is in agreement or in opposition with our politicians.
A press colleague of mine, whom I greatly respect, pointed to the many flaming comments to be found strewn online about any politician. But that is just my point—we have become so inured to the uncivil websites that we ignore them. We consider their existence to be a sign of “free speech” A brawl among unknown strangers in the dark alleys of the internet substitutes for the reasoned argument of individuals willing to stand behind their words in a public forum.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked online readers whether this university newspaper of record should require online discussants to give their real name. The only reasoned argument for those advocating anonymity was by those stating that they would not have provided identified comments because they might lose their job. Our vaunted right to free speech is less practiced in the workplace.
Speech has consequences. But when a speaker can hide, there is no consequence for the speaker and he or she escapes any responsibility for their words.
I greatly respect those who always sign their name in online comments.
If internet cowards could not hide under their white sheets of anonymity, then perhaps there would be less online cross-burning.