Anonymity Rules

By Jason Menard

It’s easy to see the world in terms of black and white. Filtered through the prism of personal interest, right and wrong can be very clear. But step back and look across the entire spectrum and what seems clear is often muddled by shades of grey.

Ideally, everyone would put their name to what they write or say, on-line and off. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

On my way into work this morning, I listened to London’s Ward 4 councillor Stephen Orser on NewsTalk 1290 CJBK, discussing what he says is an extortion campaign against him. He alleges that one of the perpetrators came forward to him, following an epiphany at Church, and confessed that they were trying to set him up to ‘ruin his reputation’ by suggesting that he was discriminating against a disabled person.

Orser’s solution is to petition the Province for laws to make on-line discourse more stringent and he suggested that anonymous posting should not be allowed. While I’m all in favour of holding people accountable for libelous statements and defamation of character efforts, I draw the line when people say that anonymous comments should be outlawed.

It’s easy to get on your high horse and say that, but once you step down into the real world, it can be a challenge.

Anonymity has its place. Throughout history, anonymous sources have helped to expose corruption large and small in many theatres: political, social, and business. And while it’s easy for people to suggest others “do the right thing” when you have a job to keep, a mortgage to pay, and kids to feed, it can be daunting.

Personally, I try to stand behind what I say on-line and off. I post my thoughts on this blog and accept comments. I share on social media and am always willing to discuss and debate my thoughts. To me, getting on a pulpit and sharing your thoughts or criticisms without allowing for discussion back is hypocritical and undermines the value of my opinion. But that’s just my view.

If you’re going to take a stand, you better be willing to defend it. Of course, I may not always be right – and if someone’s able to make a compelling argument against something I think, I’m willing to consider it and adapt my position. It’s called being a grown up.

But I have also seen ugliness and vindictiveness up close and personal. And I get why people want to remain anonymous.

At a previous employer, we were asked to do allegedly anonymous surveys. The first time, everyone filled it out honestly, giving true scores to the issues and challenges we were facing.
Then, a couple of months later, our department manager sat us around a table and started berating us. The manager demanded to know who said what and why (as the results obviously painted this person in a negative light). A few of us defended the statements (and faced ostracizing afterwards); others sat and avoided eye contact, waiting for the storm to pass.

So guess what happened the next time that survey came around? And the company actually had the audacity to herald the results as a clear sign of internal improvement.

Anonymity allows people to comment on issues that might put them in uncomfortable situations. Some employers are not as open-minded and actively restrict people from sharing their thoughts on-line.

Because someone’s not willing to put their livelihood in peril to post a comment does not invalidate that comment.

Now, there are always going to be those who abuse the system. But there are those who abuse the rights of free speech we already have. We have mechanisms in place to ensure respectful dialogue.
On this blog, I have had to refrain from posting a couple of comments – and the only reason I chose to take that action was simply because they contained potentially libellous content.

I don’t block because you don’t agree with me. I don’t block because you phrase things in a way that I wouldn’t. Heck, if you want to call me any name in the book, I’ll likely post it — though I fail to see what the value to the discussion would be. The only reason I choose not to publish a comment is solely for legal reasons.

I see it as my obligation, as someone who has the honour and privilege of having people read my posts, to open myself for the same level of commentary and criticism in return.

The advantage I have, though, is that I grew up in media. I have taken libel training. I understand the law and where that line is. Sadly, today’s social world has created an environment where many believe they can take, copy, or say anything without validation. I see examples every day from defamation of character to outright libel on Twitter. Most go unquestioned or unpunished because lawsuits are expensive — and each transgression allowed only reinforces that negative behaviour.

So if, legally, we want to throw a few checks and balances in there, I have no problem with that. After all, if you’re going to exercise your right to a medium, you need to use that right responsibly.

And if we lived in a world where people understood that criticism is not personal, where respectful discourse ruled the roost, and everyone could feel safe that expressing their thoughts would not result in ramifications, then I’d say abolish anonymous posting.

But we don’t’ live in that world. We live in a world of pettiness, vindictiveness, and emotional responses. We live in a world where we say we support the right to make mistakes and learn from them, but the moment someone with whom we’re not aligned actually makes a mistake, out come the pitchforks and torches.

Ideally, we would not need anonymity. Personally, I never post anything anonymously (I don’t even like passive-aggressive parody accounts). But I respect the rights of others who feel the need to do so for whatever reason they feel is justified.

And we really don’t need to outlaw anonymity. After all, we already have checks and balances in place.

Comment moderation works. And so does the legal system. Libel is a crime. We don’t need to ban anonymous commenting; we need people to better understand the law and behave responsibly.

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