Here’s to the demise of the social media trolls

Social media wields such power over the way we make decisions, yet its tone makes it impossible to take it seriously

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RED DEER, Alta. March 20, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Part of the blame for the decline in social civility, especially when we talk about issues around the economy, the environment – or politics generally – is the notion that we are entitled to anonymity in social media.

If nobody knows who you are, you can say anything. If nobody can trace your online lies to you, or know that you are the person behind the words, you can be as rude, hateful and disgusting as you like to other people.

If you work for a political party or interest group, you can create as many fake online identities as you like to make it appear your group is larger than it is or has more support than it deserves.

I’m not alone in believing that allowing people to comment on public issues from behind a screen has allowed discussions to deteriorate into irrelevance. How can we talk together about important things when trolls operating in secret destroy the bonds of civility that allow us to come to a consensus?

It’s an ironic conundrum: social media wields such power over the way we make decisions today, yet the tone of its power makes it nearly impossible for rational people to give social media comments any credibility.

So it is very encouraging that one of Canada’s major online news outlets – – will soon ban the use of pseudonyms in the comments beneath its news stories. Here’s hoping all others quickly follow suit.

Jennifer McGuire is general manager and editor in chief of CBC News. She publishes an editor’s blog on the national website and announced on Thursday that complaints of hate speech against Francophones in New Brunswick became the tipping point. A decision has been made that nobody will be allowed to say things on the CBC news site without everyone knowing who the speaker really is.

As an old-school newspaperman, I say it’s about time social media grew up. I don’t even think anonymous “editorial boards” should hold forth in print media on public issues. The courage of one’s convictions gets pretty thin when you don’t need to stand behind them while in line at the grocery store.

A CBC article on the issue quotes Chris Waddell, an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University. His school produces many of the reporters, editors and technical staff behind the reports you read, hear or watch every day.

He says several newspaper websites in the United States require people to supply their name, phone number and address before being allowed to comment on articles.

But given the number of commenters possible on a story, and the fact these people might be anywhere in the world, it makes verification time-consuming and expensive. That’s hard enough in a newspaper’s Letters section – can you imagine trying to call all these people back to verify they are who they say they are online?

When money is the limiting factor, Waddell rightly notes that most readers would rather see resources used to put reporters out gathering the news.

So if it costs too much to verify the identities of online commenters to news stories, how do you balance the right of people to speak with the notion they should be required to tell the truth about themselves?

The Toronto Star recently decided that the truth should not be sacrificed to economy. So they simply shut down the comments section of their online news site.

I remember when my old employer, the Red Deer Advocate, took its first steps in online news reporting. We had a full-time staffer responsible for updating the site and for being the referee of the comments section.

It became almost too much of a job just to compile a complete dictionary of swear words for the site – with every spelling alternative conceivable – for our online filter to catch and block them all.

Things have not improved much since, and news media staffing has only diminished with growth in online participation.

So if we can starve anonymous trolls of their voice in our public debates, maybe we can achieve what we first hoped social media would help us achieve – a better-informed, more democratic public debate, and a better-informed, more democratic society.

Greg Neiman is a freelance editor, columnist and blogger living in Red Deer, Alta. Greg is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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