One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts two dogs sitting at a computer with one saying to the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
This image came to mind recently when one of my hometown newspapers, The Detroit Free Press, announced it would no longer post reader comments on its website. In a letter to readers, Editor Nicole Avery Nichols explained the decision was necessary “due to the time investment needed to produce a safe and constructive dialogue.” The real culprit, I believe, is anonymity.
Reader comments became commonplace when news outlets went online in the 1990s. The idea for such comments is laudable. Members of the community may engage with writers, editors, and each other to discuss a matter in the news, adding to the discussion the perspectives of other voices and experiences.
Yet, the Free Press has decided to eliminate reader comments, following the lead of other media outlets such as NPR, CNN and the Washington Post. The Free Press now invites readers to comment on social media, where it has no duty to moderate the conversation, or through letters to the editor, which are screened before publication. Letters to the editor of the Free Press also require one important component that online comments do not – the identity of the author. To have a letter considered for publication, writers must include their “full name, full home address and day and evening telephone numbers.” The Free Press may be onto something.
In researching my forthcoming book on disinformation, Attack From Within, one of the things I learned was the danger of anonymity online. When people can hide behind a false name, they have license to say all manner of inappropriate things. As Free Press columnist Mitch Albom wrote regarding the new policy, a typical commenter can use a pseudonym like SEXYDUDE313 and say all manner of despicable things with no accountability. And so, instead of a thoughtful discussion exchanging diverse viewpoints, the conversation quickly devolves into a barrage of insults aimed at not only the reporter, but also other readers posting comments. Commenters typically attack one another with slurs based on their presumed political affiliation, their level of education, or even their race. Comments have become a sort of online heckling, but in real life, even hecklers can be thrown out of the nightclub.
The danger of anonymity online was a key finding of Robert Mueller’s special counsel report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller’s report noted that members of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization alleged to have engaged in a disinformation campaign, used false names, such as “Blacktivist,” “United Muslims of America,” and “Heart of Texas,” to pose as members of various groups and sow discord in American society. Operatives, posing as members of certain racial or ethnic groups, would post inflammatory content to provoke outrage. Some posts were designed to favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and some discouraged minority voters from casting a ballot at all. While we will never know the full extent to which Russia’s influence campaign affected the outcome of that election, this kind of foreign interference in political discourse is a danger to our democracy.
To combat disinformation on social media, one easy step could be to eliminate anonymous users. The Free Press’s example demonstrates that anonymity enables behavior that is rude, harassing, and deceptive. Congress could mandate that social media platforms require users to verify their identities. At one time, before Twitter became X, a user could become verified by providing identifying information to the platform. A blue check signaled that the person was who they said they were. Mandatory verification could help reduce threats, trolling, and the spread of disinformation. Although it would be resource-intensive, to be sure, it should be part of the cost of doing business for social media platforms.
Such a policy could face First Amendment challenges. As a general matter, the First Amendment protects anonymous speech because it permits people to engage in political speech even when it’s unpopular, and to criticize powerful people without fear of retribution. But, like all rights, the right to free speech is not absolute. The Supreme Court has routinely held that fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech, may be limited when the government has a compelling interest in the restriction and the measure is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. Here, Congress could investigate whether eliminating anonymity online effectively reduces threats, harassment, and disinformation, serving a compelling government interest. By limiting the restriction to social media, and not all speech, the law could be sufficiently narrow.
Requiring people to use their real names when posting comments online could make digital spaces safer. It would also allow readers to assess the credibility of those posting comments, making it much more difficult to be fooled by manipulative political operatives and hostile foreign actors.
And perhaps even by dogs.