The freedom of expression granted by the internet has a plethora of advantages: near-instant communication with people from around the world, learning about cultures that one may never have been exposed to otherwise and access to unfiltered information, an advantage that critics of traditional media seem to love.
The internet’s version of free speech does have a few disadvantages, though. Theft of copyrighted music aside, internet commenting is quickly becoming the main freedom of speech issue being discussed.
What’s “commenting,” you say? When news website stories come to an end, some have a section at the bottom for “comments.” Invariably, those websites that allow commenting will also have guidelines or a more rigid “terms of service,” which are clearly worded rules for what is considered acceptable behaviour for commenting, and what is not.
This is the crux of the issue.
The American chat website Reddit is the latest big media site to deal with the two elements of internet commenting: the sane, respectful, thoughtful and tolerant commenters…and those who are less so. Misogynistic, puerile, hateful and intolerant are a few words that describe a community that is causing waves across North America for traditional media companies like Popular Science, Scientific American, Reuters and, to a lesser extent, CBC and for new internet-age companies like Reddit.
Popular Science cut off commenting completely on their online stories after a deluge of attacks from anti-science activists, Scientific American cut off commenting apparently due to a flame war that got out of control, Reuters eliminated commenting on any of their online stories (the company in explanation stated “(Comment websites) offer vibrant conversation and, importantly, are self-policed by participants to keep on the fringes those who would abuse the privilege of commenting”) and CBC recently introduced tougher commenting rules. Reddit currently is weathering a storm of controversy as hate-speech enthusiasts use “free speech” arguments as their defense for holocaust denial, misogyny, racism, intolerance, death threats and general bigotry.
For any readers who aren’t familiar with internet terminology, “troll” is someone who frequently posts insults, misogyny, profanity, bigotry, intolerance or other negative comments on websites principally to harm others and in return make themselves feel bigger. A flame war is, in essence, two people arguing through a comments section, with the argument getting more and more serious, usually including threats. Some flame wars have resulted in assaults or even murder.
The core of the commenting problem hearkens back to a cartoon published in the New Yorker in the late-90’s, just as the internet was picking up steam. It depicts a dog sitting on the floor next to a second dog sitting and typing at a desktop computer. The typing dog says, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog!” Too true. One of the advantages to spreading hate through website commenting is the ability of the coward or troll to hide behind anonymity.
Anyone who submits a letter to the editor to the Pipestone Flyer has to have their name, address, phone number and home community included. That’s only fair. If the writer gives their opinion, their friends and neighbours have a right to know who is making those assertions. Anyone who feels strongly enough about an issue will be willing to have their name connected to it, and if they’re not willing to have their name connected to it, that speaks volumes about the information’s veracity, accuracy or relevance.
But troll apologists continue to wrap themselves in the flag of free speech and claim “It’s all for the good of the country.” They claim internet commenting should be free and unfettered with the ability to say anything at all about anybody with no responsibility taken for those comments, allowing every holocaust denier, Nazi, libel-monger, nut or lunatic free reign.
That reasoning is deeply flawed. Our society has laws in place to prevent libel, the irresponsible act of harming or destroying someone’s reputation with questionable or even malicious aspersions. Even the Internet has to have rules to prevent hate speech…it’s obvious the Internet won’t police itself.
People deserve to be protected from vile attacks which serve no purpose other than the titillation of a social troglodyte hunched over a computer.