The Wild Wild Web

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

Not everyone claiming online anonymity is a whistle-blowing hero

“If you ever want to lose faith in humanity, read any comments section on the Internet.”
– C Benjamin Dolnick, author and relative of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger

In 1993, when the Web was in its infancy, the wry and brilliant New Yorker produced one of its most famous cartoons – a mutt sitting in front of a computer saying to a canine companion, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Nearly two decades later, that cartoon rings truer than ever in the “comments” sections of every online newspaper, television channel, magazine, and blog.

It’s a fact that people who believe they are anonymous online behave far worse than they would otherwise, saying what they please because their identities are hidden from their bosses, coworkers, family, and friends. While some are simply inane, others can be downright vile. For every thoughtful, intelligent comment there are thousands of pointless, ignorant ones – and an alarming number that are just plain scary.

A virtual Ku Klux Klan

Newspapers and magazines receive hundreds of letters to the editor, but obviously they don’t print them all, choosing only a select few articulate, well-written pieces that make valid points (whether they agree with the articles or not). But on the Wild Wild Web, where anyone can post anything, some anonymous commenters have become nothing more than a virtual Ku Klux Klan, hiding behind a computer screen instead of under a white sheet.

In the comments section of a CNN story about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, a poster going by G.I. Jon wrote, “Martin got what he deserved.” Sadly, this was the norm in the comments sections of articles about the case, with the N-word flowing freely. Similar racist themes appeared in posts about Joel Ward, the African American Washington Capitals right wing who scored the playoff series-winning goal against the defending champion Boston Bruins. “We lost to a hockey playing (N-word) … What kind of (expletive) is this?” one person wrote. Another said, “The fact that (N-word) got the goal makes it ten times worse.” Many of the remarks about Ward came from Twitter. Once media outlets called attention to the tweets, the cowards behind them started taking them down, realizing that their “anonymous” comments could be tracked back to their public profiles.

Judges, mothers, and congressional aides

Sometimes the identity of an anonymous poster is a jaw-dropping surprise. Take the now-infamous case of Lori Drew, the mother who posed as a 14-year-old boy named “Josh Evans” on MySpace and began “pursuing” 13-year-old Megan Meier, her daughter’s former friend. After a few weeks of online flirting, Josh turned nasty, suggesting to Megan “the world would be a better place” without her. Feeling rejected by a boy she thought had liked her, Megan committed suicide.

In another case, Idaho Republican leader Tina Jacobson, chair of the Kootenai County GOP Central Committee, went to court in an attempt to force the Spokesman-Review, the daily newspaper in Spokane, Wash., to give up the identity of an anonymous commenter who suggested she had $10,000 in stolen funds stuffed in her blouse. District Court Judge John Patrick Luster agreed with Jacobson, stating, “While individuals are entitled to the right of anonymous free speech, this right is clearly limited when abused.” Luster ordered the paper to reveal the commenter’s name: Linda Cook, a former congressional aide and long-time Republican campaign worker, who later admitted the theft claim was only a rumor.

In Cleveland, Ohio, The Plain Dealer newspaper discovered that disparaging comments about a local attorney came from the e-mail address of Shirley Strickland Saffold, a judge who was presiding over some of that lawyer’s cases. Saffold, of course, denied she posted the comments.

Giada De Laurentiis has a bulbous candy apple head

Some websites and blogs are created for the sole purpose of unleashing cruel personal attacks. On a site called Food Network Humor, where the tagline is “Cook with them, laugh with us,” boards dedicated to each star bubble over with anonymous commenters trying to out-mean each other. On the board devoted to Giada De Laurentiis, someone with the screen name Josh writes: “Her nickname should be sweetie, with that bulbous candy apple head that looks like it’s photo-shopped onto her puny body that also is equipped with alligator arms and infant sized fingers. She made a dish the other day with peas and when she picked one up in her hands, it looked like she was holding a softball.”

Other posters tell Josh how funny he is: “Josh, you are hilarious. Please write a bunch more … kindred spirits at last.”

It makes perfect sense that Josh and his kindred spirits would be jealous of Giada De Laurentiis, a beautiful woman and a talented cook who pretty much has it all: great career, adorable child, loving husband, close-knit family – and a grandfather who just happened to be a renowned film producer. Like so many anonymous posters, Josh and his kind likely have nothing better to do. Too bad so many places on the Wild Wild Web give them a giant platform for their mindless drivel.

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