Sunday, October 13, 2013

Whose post is this anyway?

I'm not a fan of anonymous website postings, though it's a topic I've written about before. Recently, the issue of anonymous postings hit the news again, this time following action taken in late September by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Under a sting labeled "Operation Clean Turf," the Office of the Attorney General caught 19 companies soliciting fake reviews on websites, a practice known as "astroturfing." The OAG also noted that many sites post regular solicitations offering to pay people to write such fake reviews.

The companies were fined $350,000 for what amounted to false advertising and engaging in illegal and deceptive business practices.

In a press release, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said: "This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution." He also put businesses on alert that astroturfing was the "21st century's version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it."

The Office of the Attorney General did the right thing by trying to put a stop to companies that deliberately try to mislead customers with fake reviews.

It's one thing if a website is set up for whistleblowers to help shine a light on wrongdoing, allowing them anonymity to shield them from retribution. It's quite another when posters use the cloak of anonymity to trash a person or business simply for sport.

In his book, Integrity (Basic Books, 1996), Stephen Carter writes about the three steps that are needed to act with integrity. The first is discerning the issue. The second is to act on what you discern. And the third is to state openly what you have done and why you have done it.

If you have something to write, then have the conviction to own your passions.

A former student recently published a book review that deemed one of the books reviewed to be less than stellar. Within a day, more than 200 anonymous posters took him to task with an assortment of names and attacks. The anonymous posters may have been right to challenge the review. The difference? He put his name on the review. Their bashing of everything from his character to his marriage remained anonymous. No integrity there.

What about positive anonymous posts? The same holds true. If posters want to praise, let them do so with their name attached.

It turns out that it's just as simple to show a lack of integrity by making positive posts as it does anonymous negative ones. In fact, such anonymous positive posts can result in legal action.

Though Schneiderman's actions target businesses who post fraudulently, that still leaves thousands of anonymous posters out there who post on their own. It's impossible for readers of these posts to know if the poster has some sort of stake in what he is writing for or against. The right thing here would be for readers to take anonymous posts with a grain of salt, for websites to reconsider their practice of allowing anonymous comments and reviews and for anyone who posts to have the integrity to attach their name to their words. 

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Anonymous said...

I think we have entirely too many "anonymous" postings on the internet.

Charlie Seng

William Jacobson said...


Writings do not lack validity simply because they are unaccredited. Some of the greatest works of history were first published anonymously or under pseudonyms. Do the Federalist Papers, Common Sense, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the works of Jane Austen, and the majority of the books of the Bible lack integrity simply because they are unsigned?!?

Anonymity allows writers to tackle dangerous or overly controversial issues that may have otherwise been suppressed. The lack of accreditation means that the writing must stand on its own - seeking authority through its merits rather than through its source but also limits critics to attacking the merits rather than the author. Anonymity can be abused but, in the case you cite, it is the comments' fraudulent, not anonymous, nature that makes them (potentially) actionable.

A more viable approach would be to advise your students that critics (and even hecklers) are an unavoidable aspect inherent to the nature of advocating any position in a free speech forum and that it is far more profitable for the writer to grow a thick skin and laugh it off rather than trying to suppress expression that they dislike.

Pliny said it best when he advised to take such things "with a grain of salt" - the Greek word for salt also translates as wit.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA