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Opinion: Phasing Out the Anonymous 'Idiot'

Eesti Päevaleht's new comment system splits the discussion into a civil, responsible agora and the unruly masses.
Eesti Päevaleht's new comment system splits the discussion into a civil, responsible agora and the unruly masses. Source: Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It's a tempest in an inkpot, but a cultural revolution is taking place in the world of Estonian online commenting.

It's driven in part by a European Court of Human Rights decision from October that said that Estonian media outlet Delfi was indeed liable for anonymous comments, as Estonia's own judicial system also found. But the tide had been turning already before that.

On November 4, Eesti Päevaleht and its sibling organization Delfi announced a switch to a new system that will, for the time being, allow both types of online commenters to be served.

The first type, as editor of the twin outlets Urmo Soonvald would have it, consists of people who are "courageous enough" to comment in authenticated fashion under their own names. 

On the other side, a picture is painted of a grey, anonymous mass of disgruntled snipers and trolls, including those awful people with contempt for judges, and maybe people who have gone and lost their ID card codes. 

Most likely, the idea is to slowly phase out anonymous comments altogether, a process that editors say will take years.

At least there is a consensus this time. Ekspress Group, which owns both Delfi and Eesti Päevaleht, had been considered a holdout - ERR's Rain Kooli went so far as to call them "the last pirate" in a recent column. He argued that they knew anonymous comments were wrong all along, but insisted on going down fighting.

The conventional wisdom is that both the Ekspress Group outlets and archirival Postimees rake in much ad money thanks to readers spending more time on pages to comment. But papers are also realizing, ever more so since the Delfi decision, that they need to price in the expense of pre-moderators. Even with the notice and take down system, most of the outlets say they have five staff who go through the comments and remove around 7-10 percent that is objectionable.

Now the former holdout is leading the way while Postimees has yet to roll out any changes.

Looks like last time

Actually, Eesti Päevaleht was among the first to try phasing out anonymous commenting. When it allowed only registered users for a while several years ago, the result was that the paper's comments dried up - except for a few rather insufferable "civic" people who wrote in neat, long paragraphs - and the paper ended up looking less engaged than Postimees, where the party continued at full throttle.

Not that it's just a party. Quite a few people, including Soonvald as recently as several months ago, have noted that comment sections are a valuable secondary source of information. This is true, especially given the increasingly thin nature of the articles themselves. And like Wikipedia, the more people commenting, the more reliable such public input can be, the easier to distinguish misinformation. 

Personally, I largely quit reading Eesti Päevaleht after the temporary change, except for Andrus Kivirähk's columns under the bylines "God" and "Ivan Orav," which the paper for some reason continued to run. I found it ironic that commenters had to log in with ID cards or shell accounts to comment on a story written by God.

So far, after a week, the vox populi has sounded, and it looks like the same thing is happening. Some of the more popular stories on Eesti Päevaleht have zero registered comments and many dozen anonymous comments. If I were an advertiser, I know which side I would take out space on.

A troubling side

Truly ugly anonymous comments, comments that are a case for the police, have always been dealt with one way or another. Death threats and bomb threats are prosecuted. The IP address are investigated, ISPs are subpoenaed. It's the same as in any country.

Besides  legal and financial reasons, there seems to be more at play in the backlash against anonymous comments. It seems that the War on Libel (a noble campaign) has expanded to become a War on Fun and a War on Role-Playing (inimical to the nature of the Internet).

In a commenting system of the future, Kivirähk might be able to log in as "God" or as "Ivan Orav" (speaking from beyond the grave), but not both by turns.

What is the culture that produces both a master satirist but also denies them the possibility of responsibly playing a constellation of roles in the virtual world?

ERR News's own Vello Vikerkaar (though Postimees claims possession of him in translated form) is another example. Vikerkaar doesn't hurt a fly with his sometimes revealing glances into the Estonian mirror. But some in the Estonian media took particular relish in outing him, revealing his (supposed) true identity. Maybe some don't like that there is such a person, or don't like that he might be Estonian. In any case, Vello's outing had nothing to do with liability or press ethics. 

Estonia's is quite a silent culture to begin with, and people have trouble talking about certain issues in public. In the first example that springs to mind, obituaries omit cause of death, as if it reflected poorly on the deceased that humankind hasn't yet discovered a cure for cancer or death.

Newspapers tend to err on the side of self-censorship when it comes to senior officials like the president. While the commenters recently prosecuted for insulting judges no doubt said very ugly things and got personal, it doesn't mean that we need to bow and scrape before judges' profession. That whole matter should be questioned as one of those things in which Estonia is not quite on the same page as the rest of the West.

True or not, there is at least a touch of perceived corporatist repressiveness in society - maybe any society. Anonymous comments are good medicine - a flash of vulgar, spirited anarchy that can be a cathartic outlet for many who feel disenfranchised. There should be no stigma in continuing to opt for this channel, even if it's just to push buttons and act like a bit of a troll. Disingenuousness has always been a primary voice in the satirist's arsenal.  

What newspapers need to do is find a way to run the comment section so that it isn't obsessed with matching every posted thought to a name and number, because that seems to be the way things are going. A proper user moderation system would keep real idiots and keyboard mishaps invisible by default. And of course, media outlets also need to invest in better journalism so that there is less of a need for people to turn to the comment section immediately, sometimes before even finishing reading a half-baked story. 

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