When Comments Go Too Far

I'm a fan of our comment community. Usually they have pretty good points and typically provoke some good discussions on various subjects. (Frankly, I think the comments on Realty Check are particularly good to follow).

Of course, there is a fair share of CNBC bashing. That's predictable. And there is some puerile behavior and name calling. We try our best to weed that out. Our registration system tends to keep participants civil. Still, trolls get through and it can be a little disheartening.

That's why I found this op-ed piece over at The New York Times interesting. The author, a Facebook manager, argues that anonymity encourages bad behavior ...

Trolling, defined as the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums, is a problem as old as the Internet itself, although its roots go much farther back. Even in the fourth century B.C., Plato touched upon the subject of anonymity and morality in his parable of the ring of Gyges.

That mythical ring gave its owner the power of invisibility, and Plato observed that even a habitually just man who possessed such a ring would become a thief, knowing that he couldn’t be caught. Morality, Plato argues, comes from full disclosure; without accountability for our actions we would all behave unjustly.

This certainly seems to be true for the anonymous trolls today. After Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old Long Island girl, committed suicide earlier this year, trolls descended on her online tribute page to post pictures of nooses, references to hangings and other hateful comments. A better-known example involves Nicole Catsouras, an 18-year-old who died in a car crash in California in 2006. Photographs of her badly disfigured body were posted on the Internet, where anonymous trolls set up fake tribute pages and in some cases e-mailed the photos to her parents with subject lines like “Hey, Daddy, I’m still alive.”

Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

You can read the whole post here.In the end she argues against anonymous comments. I'm not sure I'd go that far. Some important things don't get said for fear of retribution. On the other hand, some anonymous folks get really abusive. Tough call.