Online anonymity lets users gets nasty
By JOCELYN NOVECK, AP National WriterTue Mar 20, 4:16 PM ET
When a California woman recently gave birth to a healthy baby just two days after learning she was pregnant, the sudden change to her life was challenging enough. What April Branum definitely didn't need was a deluge of nasty Internet comments.
Postings on message boards made cracks about Branum's weight (about 400 pounds — one reason she says didn't realize sooner she was pregnant). They also analyzed her housekeeping ability, based on a photo of her home. And they called her names. "A pig is a pig," one person wrote. Another suggested that she "go on the show 'The Biggest Loser.'"
"The thing that bothered me most was, people assumed because I am overweight, I'm going to be a bad mom," Branum says. "And that is not one little bit true."
It was yet another example of how the Internet — and the anonymity it affords — has given a public stage to people's basest thoughts, ones that in earlier eras likely never would have traveled past the watercooler, the kitchen table or the next barstool.
Such incidents — and there are countless across cyberspace — also raise the question: Is there anything to be done about it? Or is a decline in civil discourse simply the price that we pay for the advance of technology?
"The Internet really amplifies everything," says Jeffrey Cole, of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "We have a lot of opinions out there. All of a sudden there's a place we can go to share them." Add to that the freedom that anonymity provides, he says, and it "can lead to a rowdy Wild West situation, with no one to filter it."
"It's all things said reflexively, without thinking," says Cole, who tracks the political and social impact of the Internet as director of Annenberg's Center for the Digital Future.
"My guess is that if you went back to these people, a lot of them would have second thoughts." And if you asked them to add their name, as in a traditional letter to the editor? "They'd be embarrassed."
There are examples everywhere of anonymous comments that cause harm. On even the most innocuous sites — a parenting message board, for example — anonymity often leads to the type of response that would hardly be likely if names were attached.
"People post insults on here left and right," one person wrote Monday on the New York edition of urbanbaby.com, a networking site for new mothers. "It seems the common word these posts have is Fat. Just because someone is overweight, fat, thick whatever you call us, doesn't mean we are ugly, lazy or insecure ... So stop the childish remarks."
News organizations, struggling to find ways to keep their readers involved in an increasingly digital and interactive world, are trying to strike the right balance.
Branum's case fueled debate at the Orange County Register, whose Web site had only recently added a public comment section after news stories. OCRegister.com deputy editor Jeff Light says the site has modified its message board, only six weeks old, in response to staff concerns about inappropriate posts. Now, among other changes, language is more specific about what the site expects from those who post, and how a comment can be deleted.
Ideally, Light says, it's the users, not the site's operators, that should determine what is discussed, and how. "The comment area is not a journalistic space," he says. "The point is for people to react freely."
And Yahoo News took down its message boards completely in December, with the goal of finding a new system that doesn't let a small group of vocal users dominate the discourse. "Our hope is to raise the value of the conversation," says Yahoo spokesman Brian Nelson.
Harm can be much greater when people are singled out by name on the Web; such attacks can hurt someone's career or home life. One entrepreneur is trying to help people recover from such attacks with a company he started last year: ReputationDefender.
"It takes one person 20 minutes to destroy your reputation, and it costs them nothing," says Michael Fertik, who employs about 40 part-time "agents" on what he calls "search and destroy" missions against unwarranted Internet attacks. "It can take you 200 hours to try to clean it up."
Fertik, who says his is the only company providing such a service, has clients ranging from victims of unfair comments on dating Web sites to people who feel they've been mistreated on MySpace.com. He also is helping several female law students fight what they call defamatory sexist and racist comments on a message board widely read in the legal community. Their story was reported earlier this month by The Washington Post.
Fertik says he offers "a PR service for the everyday person," charging a fee that can be as low as $10 monthly, for a thorough search of Internet references. The "destroy" part starts with a polite letter and can occasionally lead to threatened legal action. (Generally, Web site operators are not liable for offensive postings.)
One person who takes it pretty much in stride is Branum, the California woman who was unaware she was pregnant until Feb. 26, two days before she gave birth. Her sister had alerted the newspaper to the story. Neither of them anticipated the nasty comments that rolled in.
But, Branum says, "it's America. People are going to say what they're going to say. It's going to be everywhere, and you can't stop it. Anybody's allowed." She says the flip side was the posts that came in defending her — and the cards and letters from people she didn't know, wishing her luck.
Her fiance was less forgiving, even calling the paper to complain. Branum said she had a simple response for him: "Deal with it."