Thursday, May 26, 2011

Should Anonymous Comments Be Allowed?

Lately, the question of the permissibility of anonymous comments has been raised on a number of threads on this and other blogs. While I understand that anonymity allows more "vulnerable" memebers of the philosophical community to express their views without fear of repercussions on their career and while I'm against moderating comments (readers often seem to mistake the approval of a comment for an endorsement of it), I feel that anonymity is too easily abused when the reputation of other people is at stake. I think we have seen some examples of this in the last month or so. So, I would like to hear from readers about whether they think anonymous comments should be allowed in these sorts of contexts, which we might call "sensitive". Please feel free to comment (whether anonymously or not) and/or vote in the poll.


  1. My experience with my main blog is that comments moderation is a must. Unfortunately, this is a reflection of the internet culture (or perhaps human nature reacting to the internet environment?). However, moderation of comments isn't the same as not allowing anonymity, it's actually a separate option. It is also possible to set the blog so that only registered users can comment, and registration is often not under one's actual name (but it does deter abuses to some extent, because the owner of the blog can trace back the user and file a complaint with Blogger).

  2. Huh. I would have thought that for sensitive topics we should be more willing to allow anonymous contributions, since sensitive topics elicit the strongest opinions. It is with respect to sensitive topics that people have the most to lose by defending minority positions.

    Providing anonymity only for non-sensitive topics seems to me to get things exactly backwards.

  3. On my own site I allow anonymous comments and remove the spam and abusive comment without remarking on them. It works well.

  4. Massimo,

    As I explained in the post, I think the approval of a comment by the moderator is often mistaken for an endorsement of that comment and I would definitely like to avoid that kind of misunderstanding if possible. Until recently, on this blog, I had the fortune to have to intervene only a few times and in most cases the comments were neither anonymous nor pseudonymous. But recent events are making me rethink my approach to anonymous comments.


    I thought I had explained what I meant by "sensitive" here. So, I don't see why we should be more willing to allow anonymous comments when someone's reputation is at stake. Or we should encourage people to express their strongest opinions about someone's reputation anonymously.


    The policy here was very similar to yours until recently, but I'm now wondering if it's too liberal at least in those context that I'm calling 'sensitive'.

  5. Gabriele,

    Coming on the heels of the Synthese flap, I was reading "these sorts of contexts" as referring to controversies like the discussion of the Synthese issue.

    My point is that no one cares about anonymity when there is no controversy.

    If "these sorts of contexts" refers to attacks on character, then I don't see how it matters whether the attacks are anonymous or not. Irrelevant attacks on character should not be tolerated whether made anonymously or not.

    If "these sorts of contexts" refers to cases in which someone's reputation might be damaged, then again, I'm not sure why anonymity matters. The question at stake is whether the claims being made by the anonymous commenter are truthful, relevant, verifiable, etc. If the comments can be substantiated as true and those comments damage the target's reputation, then the target's reputation deserves to be damaged. What is the relevance of anonymity to the correctness of the charges?

    I suppose there is a worry about conflict of interest on the part of various commenters. But in my opinion, the good gained from allowing anonymous commentary far outweighs the harm done by the possibility that people scrutinizing anonymous commentary will miss some conflicts of interest.

  6. As someone who always write pseudonymously online...

    I think ther are good reasons to allow a pseudonymous option, even if you don't allow anonymous comments, and even when the topic is not sensitive (although I think it's particularly important when the topic is sensitive). Some people might prefer not to use their full real names even when their is no controversy, just because real names are highly googlable, and if someone googles my real name, I'd rather they reached my work-related stuff than what I write on blogs in my spare time. It's a purely pragmatic consideration that has nothing to do with the content of what one writes.

    However, that still leaves the issue of making sure people don't leave abusive or unacceptable comments. I think requiring registration is usually a pretty good way to go about this, actuallym, and commenters would still be able to register pseudonyms if they didn't want to attach their full real names to their comments. Registration limits spam and discourages abusive commenting in the way that Massimo Pigliucci described above.

    The major downside to comment moderation is that it's actually a lot of work for the bloggers, and means you have to be available quite often through the day to approve comments in order for the conversation to keep flowing. If you're already finding it annoying/difficult to deal with just removing abusive or unacceptable comments, comment moderation may be more work, not less (unless you find yourself having to filter really huge amounts of unacceptable comments). In general, I find that comment moderation is very rarely worth the effort, but it depends on the kind of blog you run. An alternative is to remove unacceptable comments without remarking on them, as Downes said.

    So I guess I would be against removing pseudonymity, but in favour of measures like registration.


  7. (For what it's worth, CAPTCHAs can pose accessibility problems for visually impaired people. Some of the measures being discussed in this thread might be reasonable alternatives to a CAPTCHA in terms of limiting spam as well as unacceptable comments.)


  8. For a brief moment there, it looked like the Internet was going to be something new. It looked like it was going to be a place where information equality finally happened; where my opinion was as good as yours, and the winner in the marketplace of ideas would be the person most effective at presenting ideas not the person with the most powerful financial backers.

    Anonymous internet comments, especially trolling, was the forefront of freedom of expression. They broke all the rules. That, in itself, made them the champions of human freedom. Who makes the "rules@ that govern what we are allowed to discuss, other than the same controlling bullies and powerful interests who take our resources, confine our lives within narrow limits.

    For a brief moment, it looked like the Internet would be truly transformational. That on the same article that promotes the latest war, there would be 1000 comments denouncing the war.

    But the bullies have fought back. And their campaign advances under the banner "no trolls allowed". They have labeled and marginalized information dissent. It's not dissenters, it's "trolls" there is a ready smear word, and the smear word is followed by action to silence any message that is not backed by money and power. CNN has dropped it's comments on most articles citing "trolls" I guess that word is now an excuse for any kind of asymmetrical projection of information.

    1. This is more a GET OFF MY LAWN! sign than a form of censure: start your own blog if you want to denounce the war! ;-)