On too many days, I look over too many comments that appear on too many stories on this web site and just shake my head.
Where, I wonder, do some of these people come from and who puts some of these incredible notions into their heads?
It's a problem that many news web sites, this one included, must grapple with in today's free-for-all Internet environment – dealing with the hate mongers, conspiracy theorists and conversation dominators that take over many online discussions.
Tom Grubisich wrote about the problem in Monday's Washington Post:
These days we want "transparency" in all institutions, even private ones. There's one massive exception — the Internet. It is, we are told, a giant town hall. Indeed, it has millions of people speaking out in millions of online forums. But most of them are wearing the equivalent of paper bags over their heads. We know them only by their Internet "handles" — gotalife, runningwithscissors, stoptheplanet and myriad other inventive names.
Imagine going to a meeting about school overcrowding in your community. Everybody at the meeting is wearing nametags. You approach a cluster of people where one man is loudly complaining about waste in school spending. "Get rid of the bureaucrats, and then you'll have money to expand the school," he says, shaking his finger at the surrounding faces.
You notice his nametag — "anticrat424." Between his sentences, you interject, "Excuse me, who are you?"
He gives you a narrowing look. "Taking names, huh? Going to sic the superintendent's police on me? Hah!"
In any community in America, if Mr. anticrat424 refused to identify himself, he would be ignored and frozen out of the civic problem-solving process. But on the Internet, Mr. anticrat424 is continually elevated to the podium, where he can have his angriest thoughts amplified through cyberspace as often as he wishes. He can call people the vilest names and that hate-mongering, too, will be amplified for all the world to see.
You would think Web sites would want to keep the hate-mongers from taking over, but many sites are unwitting enablers. At washingtonpost.com, editors and producers say they struggle to balance transparency against privacy. Until recently, many of the site's posters identified themselves with anonymous Internet handles — which were the site's default ID. Now, people must enter a "user ID" that appears with their comments.
Those of us who run news web sites have taken steps to try and stem the flood of hate that dominates too much discussion on the web but second only to hate is the overwhelming preponderance of conspiracy theorists who see an organized threat to just about every issue.
Too often, we see the discussion of just about any news topic overwhelmed by incredible and often outlandish claims that the Bush administration and/or the CIA plotted the 9/11 terrorist attacks and/or blew up the World Trade Center and/or the Pentagon.
Or we are told Bush and his cronies are tools of the (pick one) Saudis, Israelis, Neo-Nazis or whomever.
Or everything bad that happens in the country is a secret plot to take away our guns.
The list is ever growing and endless.
Grubisich raises a good point when he suggests that web sites that give forums to such theories become enablers of the absurd and conduits of hate.
Even worse, the anonymity of the Internet allows these conditions to not only exist but escalate.
Grubisich cites one way to deal with the problem:
Though not foolproof, there are ways to at least raise the bar. Gordon Joseloff, a former CBS News correspondent who owns WestportNow.com, a popular grass-roots site in Westport, Conn., used to employ the standard permissive registration process. But in late 2005, turned off by the venom of anonymous posters, Joseloff instituted a policy requiring anyone who wanted to comment to use his or her real name. Joseloff also requires registrants to give their phone numbers. Numbers aren't posted on the site, but they give him and his team an additional check against false registration.
Why shouldn't those who comment on stories be required to use their real names? Every newspaper I worked for as a journalist required those who wrote letters to the editor to provide their name, address and phone number for verification. Letter writers were not allowed to throw hate or misinformation bombs while hiding behind "screen" names.
Likewise, every columnist who writes for this web site uses his or her real name. We don't hide our identities. Why should we continue to devote bandwidth and space to those who aren't willing to reveal theirs?