Online Anonymity Lets Users Get Nasty

By JOCELYN NOVECK
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 21, 2007; 2:25 PM

-- When a California woman recently gave birth to a healthy baby just two days after learning she was pregnant, the sudden change to her life was challenging enough. What April Branum definitely didn't need was a deluge of nasty Internet comments.

Postings on message boards made cracks about Branum's weight (about 400 pounds _ one reason she says didn't realize sooner she was pregnant). They also analyzed her housekeeping ability, based on a photo of her home. And they called her names. "A pig is a pig," one person wrote. Another suggested that she "go on the show 'The Biggest Loser.'"

"The thing that bothered me most was, people assumed because I am overweight, I'm going to be a bad mom," Branum says. "And that is not one little bit true."

It was yet another example of how the Internet _ and the anonymity it affords _ has given a public stage to people's basest thoughts, ones that in earlier eras likely never would have traveled past the watercooler, the kitchen table or the next barstool.

Such incidents _ and there are countless across cyberspace _ also raise the question: Is there anything to be done about it? Or is a decline in civil discourse simply the price that we pay for the advance of technology?

"The Internet really amplifies everything," says Jeffrey Cole, of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "We have a lot of opinions out there. All of a sudden there's a place we can go to share them." Add to that the freedom that anonymity provides, he says, and it "can lead to a rowdy Wild West situation, with no one to filter it."

"It's all things said reflexively, without thinking," says Cole, who tracks the political and social impact of the Internet as director of Annenberg's Center for the Digital Future.

"My guess is that if you went back to these people, a lot of them would have second thoughts." And if you asked them to add their name, as in a traditional letter to the editor? "They'd be embarrassed."

There are examples everywhere of anonymous comments that cause harm. On even the most innocuous sites _ a parenting message board, for example _ anonymity often leads to the type of response that would hardly be likely if names were attached.

"People post insults on here left and right," one person wrote Monday on the New York edition of urbanbaby.com, a networking site for new mothers. "It seems the common word these posts have is Fat. Just because someone is overweight, fat, thick whatever you call us, doesn't mean we are ugly, lazy or insecure ... So stop the childish remarks."

News organizations, struggling to find ways to keep their readers involved in an increasingly digital and interactive world, are trying to strike the right balance.

Branum's case fueled debate at the Orange County Register, whose Web site had only recently added a public comment section after news stories. OCRegister.com deputy editor Jeff Light says the site has modified its message board, only six weeks old, in response to staff concerns about inappropriate posts. Now, among other changes, language is more specific about what the site expects from those who post, and how a comment can be deleted.


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