Not their real names

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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He has been called a liar, a fool, of being “on the payroll of the neo-Nazis”. Not to mention the death threats. And now Robert Fisk, the veteran, polarising writer for the Independent, has had enough of the abuse from unnamed online commenters.

“Surely this is not what the internet is for?” he writes. “Across the world now, anonymity – the bane of every newspaper Letters Editor – is accepted by cyber-journalism, the more hateful, the more understandable.”

Fisk might be guilty of a bit of generalisation there, but he’s not the first to lash out at the “digital poison” of nameless trolls.

While it’s something of a perennial among columnists thrust into the online brawl, the number of writers denouncing the practice seems to be swelling, perhaps as the improved civility of comment threads promised by editors fails to materialise.

In New Zealand, Brian Edwards recently mounted a similar argument, writing on his personal blog that while anonymous commenters and bloggers defend their custom as “a healthy expression of democracy”, it is a “democracy of the gutless whose commonest weapon is abuse hurled from behind the ramparts of their anonymity”.

While the cases made by Fisk and Edwards have merit, it’s worth noting that they fail to distinguish between anonymity and pseudonymity. And many of the most eloquent and measured comments beneath their posts are signed by noms de plume.

For a thorough counterview, read this post by pseudonymous blogger Queen of Thorns.

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In a Reddit ‘ask me anything’ New York Times media reporter David Carr has aired his fears about the future of the internet, and the level of abuse he encounters:

I’m really worried that we are going to end up in our own verticals of information… I am always struck by the fact if I write something vaguely critical of Jon Stewart, I get emails written in language that makes even me blush, or if I get linked on Drudge, a whole hoard of people come over the hill trying to fill me with ack-ack. No one really wants to talk, no one is really asking a question, they are just telling me what a worthless idiot I am before moving on to the next drive-by.

 

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Anyone who posts online without using their real name, whether for good reason or otherwise, will note with interest, if not alarm, the emergence of software that studies use of language to identify anonymous posts. “The techniques compare user posts to track them across forums and could even unveil authors of thesis papers or blogs who had taken to underground networks,” writes Darren Pauli in SC Magazine, a title specialising in information security.

And so far the results are strikingly accurate. “If our dataset contains 100 users we can at least identify 80 of them,” said researcher Sadia Afroz. “Function words are very specific to the writer,” said. “Even if you are writing a thesis, you’ll probably use the same function words in chat messages. Even if your text is not clean, your writing style can give you away.”

While the studies have so far been limited to discussion groups, the approach is likely to appeal to authorities of all hue, for good or ill. Which is why forum users are beginning to adopt tools which analyse text and “identify unique features such as function words which could make them identifiable”.

It’s hard to say, however, what software such as “Anonymouth” will do for prose quality. In some cases, it might just improve it.

 

More by Toby Manhire

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