Trolling Does Not Require Anonymity
I find it rather sad that many in the mainstream media believe that trolling will be eliminated if Anonymity is not possible. It's not only a belief based in ignorance, but also a reflection of a bias that leads them to believe that their personal and professional experience is universal.
It's partly a reflection of the culture of comments on mainstream media sites. The vast majority of which have a horrific comment culture in which trolls haunt their sites and terrorize journalists and users alike.
Explicitly this has come up over #IdleNoMore coverage as the racists and xenophobes have been out in force to denounce attempts by Canadians to stand up for treaty rights and the environment.
Heather Mallick writing in the Star seems to argue that the only reason the racist comments are there is because the posters are able to hide their identity. She asserts this as a reason why real names should be a requirement for posting online. (While I agree with her that the racist comments are deplorable, I don't agree they would stop if the racists had to post under their own name).
Google and Facebook feel this way as well. Though I suspect their reason is less one of online civility and instead part of their business plan and pursuit of profit. They want real names so they can connect your interests, friends, and online activity.
There has also been quite a bit of controversy over Google's real names policy for their Google Plus social network. Their aggressive and adamant insistence that your Google Plus account be in your real name, rather than a nick name, or alias.
Microsoft researcher and superstar social scientist danah boyd argues that real name policies are an abuse of power. Explicitly she makes the case that real name policies are not empowering, "they're an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people."
It does seem a bit ludicrous after all. Identity is fluid and dynamic. We change. Often unpredictably. We also lie, especially online. Especially to sites like Facebook. Often for reasons that are quite reasonable, like not wanting to be stalked by ex-lovers or people from our past who should remain there.
Even if anonymity could be prevented, if people were forced to speak or post as themselves, we would still have trolling and trolls. I'd even argue you'd have more trolls, and more disruptive trolling.
I know a lot of trolls, many who gleefully troll under their real and legal name.
At the Academy of the Impossible we regularly hold events that examine both trolling and identity online, especially anonymity. We've got another in the series coming up on Jan 24th.
One of the primary insights we keep returning to is how huge a mistake it is to synonymize anonymity and trolling. They are two separate phenomena worth exploring on their own.
The reason trolling is distinct, and would flourish if there were no anonymity, is that trolling is about power, and dissent. Trolling is a form of disruption and dissent that predates the internet, yet the internet is also allowing it to innovate in remarkable ways.
As long as there is power, there will be trolling. Trolls love the mainstream media, because it is a powerful venue, a place to challenge the status-quo as they see it. It's also a place to get attention.
The problem with attacking anonymity as a response to trolling, is you not only fail to solve the problem you meant to fix, but create new problems, as anonymity is the cornerstone of modern democracy. The secret ballot is the basis of how we choose our government. We assume that political participation is based on freedom, and not intimidation or fear. Forcing people to identify themselves before they speak erodes that freedom.
Further, the issue of civility online is distinct from trolling or anonymity. Ironically it is an issue that mainstream media could solve, but for various reasons choose not to. Instead they enjoy these false debates that allow them to bask in their power without actually addressing the challenge they are facing.