Should TalkAbout continue to allow anonymous postings?


By on Sun, November 18, 2007

"The promiscuous use of anonymity breeds distrust. Readers react to anonymous online postings with the same skepticism that they have for newspaper articles that rely unnecessarily on unnamed sources. They wonder if the anonymous blogger is a paid shill, or has some other conflict of interest, just as they wonder if a newspaper’s anonymous source is objective or has an ax to grind. And if the use of anonymity is not explained or apparent from the context, readers will question a blogger’s good faith, just as they may wonder whether a newspaper’s anonymous source really exists.

"And anonymity corrodes the conventions of civil discourse, giving vent to impulses that, for society’s sake, are perhaps best held in check. Viciously personal attacks, racist screeds and paranoid rants are commonplace on the anonymous Internet. While such displays may provide an interesting laboratory for Freudian psychologists, they contribute nothing to debate on matters of public interest. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this invective, you know that it is impossible to reason with people who are screaming at you from behind a one-way mirror. The volume of their screaming only goes up."

It sounds like a perfect description of what TalkAbout has become. Yet Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist writing an opinion piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle Insight Section (Sunday, November 18, 2007, page E2) probably has never visited our own TalkAbout site.

He is Executive Director of the California First Amendment Coalition ( and rationally discusses situations where anonymity is crucial - for example, "a Chinese blogger, defying a government censorship decree, publishes information about the crash of a military transport plane." Anonymity in that situation protects the Chinese blogger’s life.

But "[f]or bloggers who publish in the relative security of the United States (compared with, say, China or Iran or Singapore), fear of reprisals, the most commonly cited justification for anonymity, is greatly exaggerated. When a blogger in California mentions the risk of reprisals, he is really talking about the discomfort of having to stand in a supermarket checkout line next to a city council member whom he has criticized."

It is a very interesting opinion piece. Some of you will disagree. Others will find Mr. Scheer’s full article very informative. His conclusion:

"Most anonymous speech is just digital graffiti. Although it is protected from government regulation under the First Amendment, private publishers - whether bloggers or news media Web sites - have a duty to take responsibility for materials that they publish. In all but the most extreme cases, taking responsibility means identifying the author."

If you didn’t purchase today’s Chronicle at the newsstand or get it by home delivery, you can read the entire piece online. It is headlined "Anonymity vs. Responsibility: Balancing political freedom with journalistic credibility in the Age of Blogging".

I have no expectation that the Half Moon Bay Review will change its policies for TalkAbout. But there is very good reason for the Review to think through their position and consider good journalistic ethics.

Paul Perkovic