Ending anonymity won’t kill trolls

Arianna Huffington promises an end to anonymous comments. That won't stop trolls -- but the fight is worthwhile

Topics: Huffington Post, Online culture, The WELL, Table Talk, ECHO, Twitter, Facebook, Trolls,

Ending anonymity won't kill trollsArianna Huffington (Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

Can Arianna Huffington eliminate online trolling? It’s a tall order. But then again, is there anything the woman who invented the sideboob vertical can’t do for the Internet when she puts her mind to it? During a conference in Boston this week, the Huffington Post founder announced that starting next month, visitors to her site will have to identify themselves by name in order to comment.

It’s a drastic shift for a site that gets roughly 270,000 comments a day, and has amassed an astounding 260 million comments since it launched. “Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier and I just came from London where there are rape and death threats,” she said, referencing a recent outbreak of particular ugliness against women on Twitter. She added that “I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and not hiding behind anonymity.” A spokesman declined to elaborate on how the new policies would take effect, but told CNN Thursday, “Our engineers are working on the exact implementation plan and we will share that as soon as it is finalized.”

The Internet has from its inception had an ugly and often anonymous side. The sheer brutality in the comments of a typical HuffPo story today isn’t much different in tone than what you’d have seen on Usenet two decades ago. The main difference isn’t the content – it’s simply the sheer glut of trolls, the way they can swarm all over the comments of a story, or pick a single target and inundate that person relentlessly. And HuffPo is not the only site grappling with terrible online behavior. Last week, Ask.fm announced it would be stepping up its moderation and implementing better tools to report bullying, after the latest teen suicide from a user who’d been anonymously harassed on the site. Facebook and Twitter have both this year had to take a hard look at their problems with aggression, and announce steps to combat it.



As one who’s been there, I wish Huffington and her crew the best of luck in their undertaking. I managed Salon’s user forum, Table Talk, for 14 years, and long before that I was a host on the venerable online community the WELL. In other words, I’ve been watching people call each other Nazis for a long, long time. When we started Table Talk in the mid-’90s, we deliberately modeled it after the WELL and Echo, systems that require users to post with a degree of identification.

So will new and stricter posting requirements eliminate trolling? Oh hell no. Trolls are unkillable. You put up barriers to anonymity, I promise you they will find ways around them. They are working on them right now. They will get in, and will say things that will horrify you. And I can also tell you that although a great many trolls thrive on hiding within the safety of their mystery, plenty of them do not give a rat’s butt who knows who they are. They will contentedly spew their garbage under their own names, proudly standing behind it. And if you kick them out, they will come back in. They are an incredibly durable breed. They have time and energy that you – assuming you’re not a troll – cannot begin to fathom. Saying crazy crap on the Internet is their job, and they take their job very, very seriously. This, by the way, is why I gave up on reading the comments. The trolls have a devotion I don’t.

As TechCrunch pointed out last year, when YouTube announced plans to implement stricter commenting requirements, making users post with their real names is not a magical cure-all. “In 2007, South Korea temporarily mandated that all websites with over 100,000 viewers require real names, but scrapped it after it was found to be ineffective at cleaning up abusive and malicious comments.”

For all the hoops the communities I’ve worked on ever made users jump through, we still had plenty of crazy and plenty of mean. But I still believe, based on experience, that there’s value in serious moderation and user accountability. (I also believe, in plenty of other circumstances, in the absolute necessity of anonymity, and in the power of giving people space to speak freely and without fear of consequence on issues they otherwise feel they can’t discuss. I just doubt the comments section of HuffPo is that space.) I’m proud of the communities I’ve been part of, and know the people who participated in them worked tremendously hard to make them lively and smart and to swat down the inevitable outbreaks of bad behavior.

Most of us are here in the online world because we’re looking for some form of connection. We want to express our ideas and opinions, we want to share them and we want to know what others feel too. But if all you do is give people a posting box and no investment in that box, of course a number of them are going to fill it with trash. Similarly, if all you’re doing is building one or two more barriers to get through, a fair number of creeps will get through them anyway, and they will in fact relish the challenge. Community management requires many tools. It takes engagement from its owners and managers, to give users the reassurance that its community is a priority, that it is cared for and cultivated. It takes users who moderate each other and know how to lead and set the appropriate tone. It takes well-developed tools to block and ignore and prioritize, so that the valued members of the community aren’t drowned out by the angry yelling ones. It takes a degree of acceptance that the angry yelling ones will always be part of the fabric, but an indefatigable commitment to fighting them. It takes accountability galore. And accountability isn’t just as simple as making users put their names on their words. But it’s a decent start.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...