When Trolls Attack: Would Requiring Real Usernames Improve Discussions Online?


Free speech is one thing: Inflamed free speech aimed at unleashing rage on blogs is often disturbing and disruptive and contributes to a much harsher environment on the web.

Anger management experts liken keyboard rage to road rage. The irresistible urge to vent instantly and anonymously empowers those in our society who feel the most powerless. The screen is the enemy, the keyboard the weapon for launching attacks free of eye-to-eye confrontation or personal consequences.

This maliciousness is what prompted the Washington Post blog to turn off reader comments, explaining the comment area had decayed into a bottomless pit of vicious name-calling attacks on anyone from Post reporters to public figures or other contributors.

“In short, online reader comments have become home for the kind of claptrap that those same media wouldn’t dare print in their op/ed sections,” says communications consultant Steven Silvers, who ads that most local newspaper sites have not followed the Post’s lead.  “It’s because comments are a cheap way to make money,” he figures. “Lots of comments generate lots of space for online ads without paying reporters.”

Instead, sites are urging readers to stick to appropriate comments and to use their real names when registering to identify themselves with others and lend credibility to their contributions. It is believed site visitors are more likely to trust insights shared from “real” people – and your contributions could also boost your profile since they can be traced by search engines.

That said, many are divided on whether or not requiring real user names for visitors to sites would tame comments or simply make us more vulnerable to being exposed via Google by schools and employers who might not like what we spewed about climate change, cosmetic poisons or drug-fed cattle. While the green blogitat isn’t the only turf witnessing trolling, it appears to lure more than its share of alarmist soothsayers and obstreperous disbelievers.

Ending Web Anonymity

Rather than hiding behind protective pseudonyms like Kazooguy, Dogtown and Doctorpsycho1960, those who comment would have to come out of the laptop closet and reveal themselves as John Jones, Mary Worth and Alan Stein.

According to Sue on the Web, an alternative site that has written about the hardships of keyboard rage, ranters are “hiding behind the pixels on the screen and safe in a viral world where no one knows their names.” The founder also observes the rage is no longer limited to the comment section reserved for readers.

“I’ve lost count of the amount of complaints I’ve received over the years from members who have been sent inappropriate and insulting personal messages because someone did not agree with a comment he or she posted on the forum,” she says. “On occasion, even after polite warnings to stop, I have resorted to banning such members from our community.”

Reasons to Use Real Names

While appreciating the voices of those out of the mainstream, some readers and writers would rather go the route of the daily newspaper where letters to the editor are voiced with reason and using authentic names. Forcing individuals to stand behind their real handles doesn’t interfere with free speech, but could make great strides in keeping websites from deteriorating into hostile underground infernos for venting frustration. It has emerged a fun social media sport for many who can strike hard and then distance themselves from what they say.

That fun isn’t restricted to the average troll up all day using the WiFi at the nearby coffee house. Corporate plants engaging in digital marketing are usually the first in line to comment on controversial content, using deceitful public relations tactics to defend an industry’s turf. Typically, the approach is to come off as an everyday Joe user and challenge the methods of reporting (i.e. lazy, shoddy, not well researched, biased) or to provide links to glowing marketing pieces written about the same subject.

Reasons to Maintain Pseudonyms

The idea of being exposed via Google can cause problems for readers who would rather an employer not know how they really feel about petroleum exports, water shortages or the misguided politics in the Middle East. It also could chill the heated debate now raging on the web following controversial content – and on occasion – interesting ideas are voiced by enraged readers.

“It’s all a sideshow,” shares one avid follower of independent news sites, who says he occasionally uses his real name but feels it should be people’s option to use their names or not. “If someone uses the name Dieselsnowman it tells you something about him. I try to ignore the freaks, and I find other commentators often dog pile on them anyway.”

Reporters seem to be learning to ignore it, as well, after years of scathing criticism. Steven Silvers finds some reporters have stopped looking at feedback to their stories, no longer interested in what their most vocal readers are saying. “I see that there are a hundred comments posted to a story and won’t even look,” one reporter told him. “I know what kind of stuff is in there and it is just disgusting.”

Coping with the Crazed Elements

It really is up to web editors to discourage inappropriate comments and to resist forcing blog writers into the position of defending their opinions or reporting, as with any credible media outlet. Meanwhile, banning repeat offenders from sites is a good tactic until a time when the process might change. Some of the more incensed contributors should be urged to take time out before reacting – the usual method recommended in anger management therapy. Read that blog, then walk away, count to 10, take a few breaths, and relax before reacting. Most people will find staying contained when making that important comment will greatly contribute to the legitimacy of their words.

Image: CarbonNYC

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.