Goodbye anonymity: let’s unmask the internet

The Huffington Post’s aim to validate the identity of every new user is ambitious, and it may not succeed – but it is right to try

Dear internet. Pick your dirty laundry up off the floor, wipe that scowl off your face and start behaving like a civilised network of users. It’s time you grew up.

The missive handed down last week from Arianna Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Post website, could hardly have been more direct. She effectively declared the internet's prolonged adolescence over. Citing the rape and death threats made against female journalists in the UK, Huffington announced that, to "meet the needs of the grown-up internet", anonymous posters would no longer be able to register at the site that bears her name.

It is often argued that allowing anonymous commenting on websites such as the HuffPo and is the price we pay for a healthy, vibrant internet.

I can almost recite the debate. Anonymity promotes lively discussion, goes the argument: “trolls” hide behind avatars, but so do people with legitimate reasons to be discreet. Many important world events in recent years relied on people being able to communicate via pseudonyms, we are told. Whistleblowers rely on anonymity, its advocates say. So do people who want to share personal experiences on stories about sexual identity, say, or financial matters.


Then there is the question of whether forcing people to use their real names even leads to better behaviour. A cursory glance at some of what passes for harmless banter on Facebook suggests otherwise.

These are all valid and sensible arguments – and if I believed for one second that the internet was in “healthy and vibrant” state, I might even go along with them. But it’s not. When was the last time you saw someone posting anonymously on a news website in order to blow the whistle on some claim of corporate wrongdoing?

Still thinking? Okay, try this. When was the last time you saw someone posting anonymously to slag someone off, or to heap opprobrium on the female half of a couple photographed while involved in a sex act at a concert? Thought so.

The Huffington Post’s aim to validate the identity of every new user is ambitious, and it may not succeed. But it is right to try, because the alternative is that we roll over and let the bullies and the snarky, hate-mongering masses have the internet.

When I was editor of from 2010 to 2011, I discovered that there were certain hot-button topics guaranteed to bring out the worst in (often anonymous) commenters. Travellers was one. Feminism another. Immigration. Transgender issues. RTÉ presenters’ salaries. There were days when my fingers burned from deleting comments; days when I left the office feeling utterly dispirited by the cruelty I had seen commenters direct at one another and at journalists.

Acres of column inches have been devoted to answering the question of why we behave so badly online. I suspect many people do it just because they can.

Every time this topic comes up, it prompts protest that anonymous online commentary is a cornerstone of free speech. Sorry, but that’s just tosh – posting anonymous comments on the website of a private, commercial media organisation is not your constitutional right.

Expecting websites to weed out all the nasty ones isn’t realistic. The HuffPo has 40 moderators and a suite of algorithms dedicated to the task – but it publishes nine million comments a month, and that’s only a quarter of those submitted.

Of course, many of the people who piled vitriol last week on a girl at Slane who had been photographed in a sex act didn’t even bother to do so anonymously. But if we want to return to more civil discourse, we have to start by creating an environment where people finally grasp the repercussions of engaging in debate online.

The policy at The Irish Times requires users to register via a social media account, but they don't need to provide further proof of identity. The new policy being implemented at the HuffPo will allow users to post using a pseudonym, once they give their real, authenticated identity at registration. In my view, more news websites will eventually adopt similar measures. By all means, allow pseudonymous commenting – but get their real names first.

So yes, Arianna, I’m with you on this. It’s no longer about the price we would pay to sacrifice anonymity. It’s about what it is costing us to preserve it.