Online anonymity is the last refuge of cowards

A father of three was missing. Yet, fools still rushed in

by Adam Goldenberg

George Smitherman, left, and his husband, Christopher Peloso, in a photograph from May 2009. (Nathan Denette, The Canadian Press)

This is the age of faceless troglodytes. On Twitter, the popular micro-blogging site, any idiot with an internet connection can spew hateful garbage into cyberspace, all while remaining anonymous. It’s cowardly, it’s depressing — and it won’t stop until we make it. Eventually, perhaps we will.

On Sunday, Christopher Peloso disappeared. By Monday morning, Toronto police had found him dead.

His family’s anguish wouldn’t have attracted the attention of the Twitter trolls, but for one important detail: Mr. Peloso’s husband is George Smitherman, the former Ontario deputy premier who lost the 2010 Toronto mayoral election to Rob Ford.

While Mr. Peloso was missing, Kevin Renouf, who described himself on Twitter as the owner of PID Engineering, tweeted that, “Smitherman reports to the [Globe and Mail] about his wife brings it on himself #idiot.”

“I thought that guy was a homo and who would give up that hottie for George’s anus. He must be crazy,” was Chuck Burke’s contribution. According to his Twitter account, he works for a recycling company that does contract work for the University of Ottawa. (“That hottie” was evidently a reference to a woman shown in a photo with Mr. Peloso.)

Michael Coren, a conservative commentator whose Catholicism falls somewhere to the right of the Pope’s, went on the offensive on Monday morning, less than eight hours after Mr. Smitherman issued a heartbreaking statement confirming his husband’s death. “George a former drug addict, Peloso with mental health issues; yet they’re allowed to adopt,” Coren tweeted. Coren has previously opposed both same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples. His salary is funded by corporate advertisers, including Netflix and Chrysler. They should be embarrassed by his bigotry. So should he.

He isn’t, of course. Nor are the authors of by far the most vulgar comments: Twitter users who kept their real names to themselves. As Mr. Peloso’s family feared for his safely—and even after his body was found—these faceless trolls spouted homophobic bile and suggested that domestic abuse and drug use were responsible for Mr. Peloso’s disappearance.

Ask them to identify themselves, as I did on Sunday, and they and their cheerleaders respond with rage. By Monday morning, I’d been called a “fascist” and compared to former U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Gestapo, all for asking a simple question: “What’s your real name?”

On the internet, anonymity is the last refuge of cowards.

At some point on Sunday evening, I started reposting some of the most hateful tweets on my own Twitter feed. In Twitter-land, this is considered poor form; “don’t feed the trolls” is the usual rule. But this was different. A father of three was missing. His family was distraught. Yet, fools still rushed in. They made a deliberate choice to use the suffering of others as a springboard for their venom. Why shouldn’t they be held to account for their own words?

Last week, Justine Sacco, the former head of corporate communications for a major internet company, lost her job for posting an insensitive tweet. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Ms. Sacco joked, before taking off on an international flight. By the time she touched down in Cape Town, she was infamous—and quickly unemployed.

Ms. Sacco’s is a cautionary tale about the hazards of instant publication, but at least she was held accountable for her own words. Anonymous trolls keep their identities secret to escape similar consequences. By ignoring their namelessness, we allow them to do so. All of us are poorer for it.

Perhaps this will prove to be a passing phenomenon. My generation has lived digitally for as long as we’ve had thoughts to express. Before too long, everyone under the age of 30 will have amassed such a vast quantity of online utterances—with our identities attached—that true facelessness will be impossible to sustain.

Two things will likely happen. We’ll grow to be more forgiving of isolated incidents of tastelessness and indiscretion, as we all produce as much mud as we could ever possibly throw at one another. At the same time, we’ll develop a reflexive instinct to second-guess our own online impulsiveness; we’ll learn to watch what we say online, just as, one hopes, the anonymous twitterers who smeared Mr. Peloso and Mr. Smitherman would think twice before saying aloud—to their children, say—what they so readily posted on the web.

None of this will be any consolation to Christopher Peloso’s family. On the internet this week, he wasn’t just dead, but also dehumanized, reduced to a foil for others’ fury. This is the real price of online anonymity: the cheapening of our shared humanity. Bigoted blowhards like Michael Coren make their living by shocking their audience, and we (and his corporate patrons) can judge him and others accordingly. But, for nameless trolls, such accountability is elusive. Would they proudly read their tweets to their neighbours and employers?

We can hope that, in time, a generation that has grown up online will outgrow the cowardly shadows of namelessness. Still, faceless hatred will endure—as long as we let it. Until then, nothing less than our own collective decency will hang in the balance.

Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby-Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @adamgoldenberg.




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Online anonymity is the last refuge of cowards

  1. I was wondering why all comments were closed on the Post and the Globe. I wonder no more.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • Yep, censorship, removing anonymity is what the government and back room corrupt want as so they can vindictively persecute people for telling the truths and exposing corruptions. Helps hide the deceptions they give us to eliminate free thought.

        Only times I agree with censorship or removing anonymity is where a judge deems the activities open crimes onto others and involves blatent slander or threats. And telling truths or expressing opinions is NOT a crime in my book.

        The corrupt system we live in does persecute and lay off people for politics. A magic phone call and golden handshake can get you problems.

        • We’ve never had a time when people could speak openly….I don’t know why this guy thinks we can now, in an age when people get death threats over trivia….much less treason charges for revealing criminal actions.

          And certainly women….who get threats on a regular basis… don’t want their names online.

    • We are a well managed herd.

  2. I did not grow up in the digital age therefore, my reference points are somewhat different. I have watched the world turn to embrace sociopaths, whereas in the past they were castigated and often abused. The town bully was often a sociopath. However, education teaches them to control their ‘symptoms’ and most do just fine. Until someone disturbs their black and white world – then all hell breaks loose. They don’t need to beat up the speaker or the player or whomever has upset the scales. They now can spew it on social media. Hence the anonymity.

    • Excuse me but didn’t Germany embrace Hitler and Russia embrace Stalin, all before the digital age?

  3. Nonsense. The comments should be judged harshly for their vile content, not for whether they were made anonymously. There are many valid reasons for not posting in an indentifiable manner (my own is that there is evidence of extremist nutjobs on this site, and I do not completely trust their actions if they knew who I was. And those are just the ones that comment, I have no idea who is lurking).

    Some of the worst comments might have run afoul of hate speech laws. Rather than call for everyone to be identified, the worst ones should have been handed over to the proper authorities to judge whether action should be taken (it is a shame we have no more Federal rights commission, but other avenues might exist). Granted there are issues with the possibility of proxy servers, of course, but that is the proper solution.

    • Or Maclean’s could simply take down the comments that would actually run afoul of hate speech laws, and we could reduce the number we arrest for not much social benefit. Hate speech laws are meant to protect us from political machines and the press, not Archie Bunker.

      Also, extremism is in the eye of the beholder. I consider you one of the most extremist people here, for example, though perhaps harmless.

      • Anyone who wants Human Rights Commissions to penalize speech is far from harmless.

        • Yep, they want to limit free speech to control us like herd sheep.

          I am like you, if they gag someone I don’t like, when will I be gagged? I rather put up with idiotic anonymous rant than to be managed like a chicken.

      • Protect or control us? If I say I don’t like your and in my option you are morally corrupt….and I then to be persecuted and lose anonymity?

        If no threats, no illegality…leave anonymous alone. When we ban truths for political corruption such as Assange, Brown, Snowdon and others…. we know our society is ethically corrupted to the core.

        Heck, if you threaten, stalk or harass….OK, expose anonymous. But for truths, facts, opinions….should not be banned, censored or persecuted.

  4. The comments section is usually the worst part of a news site. A better way to handle it and keep the luxury of anonymity, is to handle it the way we used to with letters to the editor. Namely, if you have something that the news organization thinks is a good comment then they post it, rather than having any old person scrawl hateful things under the news story.

    But blaming us for being cowards for preferring anonymity, I don’t know if I think that’s particularly fair Adam. After all, I don’t think I would comment at all if I couldn’t be assured of my anonymity because everything I write is logged forever. I don’t think I have acted as a troll here, but I have bad days and bad judgement sometimes and my temper might get the best of me. I might also be on the wrong side of history on some issues, but might upon further reflection or a change of life experiences come to repudiate later. However, nobody ever forgives in this society at all, and one errant comment on a public site when you are a dumb college kid could ruin both your public or business career for life.

    In the end though Adam, Maclean’s ultimately bears responsibility for what is on their site, and has the power to remove problematic posts and people whenever they wish. This news magazine tolerates the trolls around here (and one in particular who comments on every single article) because they and the people that argue with them drive online traffic revenue. So saying “shame on you” is a little rich.

    In the case of twitter, you could simply choose not to follow them, or use the ignore feature. The thing about anonymous commentators and tweeters is that they have no real influence or power except when journalists draw attention to it, like you did in this article. People who do have enduring influence in the public sphere because they put their real name on things (such as Micheal Coren) do have to stand behind their words and can face consequences for it. Just write a letter to his corporate sponsors.

    • LOL

      • Yes, I was referring to you.

        • I know. Cons can’t resist partisan lies no matter the topic.

          • And think, if we gag the Cons, can we gag you too?

            Be intelligent, gagging and opposing free thought hurts us all. Makes us managed chickens when our squawks are censored, ignored and repressed.

          • Exposing what Cons really think is the best part of a chatsite sometimes. LOL

          • And the posts are often the best and most informed part of the story.

          • Heh….very true.

  5. Adam nailed it. The people commenting here about why they hide their identities only add to his argument.
    If you have something to say, put your name on it. This is Canada, not Syria.

    • So you believe everything that you believed as a teenager or in college?

      • Changing your views is called “learning.” It’s a part of life.

        • Hence Paula Deen being trashed for something she said in 1987. Got it. Thanks.

        • I admit, this is very true. Dawned on my after my first semester in college and later in university. Don’t give the prof what you think, give the prof what he wants to hear. While they got my compliance, they didn’t get my mind.

          Learning what is BS and what matters is an essential life skill. We are bombarded with propaganda and herd management drivel all the time be it advertising or politics. Only guarantee here is someone is trying to manipulate your mind.

      • No, my opinion and viewpoints have sometimes changed. But I try to make sure my opinion is based on facts, knowledge and reason so I can usually justify my thinking at the time. And when I’m shown that my knowledge was incomplete or my logic was flawed, I admit it and apologize instead of digging myself into a bigger hole.

    • Despite your preceived bravery for posting under what may be your real name, I feel you’re being a trifle naive. The danger of unfair repercussions from online statements may be small, but it’s hard to say they’re non-existant.

    • I know there isn’t much difference between Syria and Canada other than the degree, in Syria they take your life, here they economically ruin people for expression. Its a mater of degree, but persecution of free thought takes many forms.

      I have had enough exposure to western society being born here to know people are persecuted for their options and truths everywhere, its political corrupt nature of the human beast. You need look no futher than Assange, Brown, Snowdon and others who tell truths. Having a real good memory I often lookup whistle blowers to corruption to see what happened afterwards, and add that to my information technology experiences….I KNOW persecution exists here too, just that you probably will not be physically murdered for it. We hide it better but it happens.

      • You are seriously equating Assange and Snowden to the trolls who spewed vile homophobic partisan barbs at a dead father and husband?

        Trolls are not whistleblowers.

  6. Also, passing responsibility for your words to the moderators is a spectacularly lame way of avoiding taking responsibility for your own words.

    • Never posting anything but prim and proper conventional thoughts is a spectacularly lame way of avoiding taking responsibility for your own THOUGHTS.

  7. This comment was deleted.

    • Adam may have his faults but this is absurd.

    • See….here is the problem in your thinking…

      ‘Is the viciously bigoted anonymous troll EmilyOne a perfect example of what Adam is talking about?’

      I’m neither anonymous, bigoted nor a troll….you simply disagree with me, and cope with that by lying.

      Until you learn to disagree civilly….you will always have problems, and get back what you throw out.

    • “Is firing a man from a job where he can expect to make $2 million over
      the rest of his career a proportionate response to a single rude Tweet
      that maybe 50 people will read?”

      I dunno. Why don’t you ask the man’s employer.

    • I love your rational post as it has a lot of reality in it. Keep posting!

      But know, if someone wants NSA knows it all and has back doors into Cisco and other routers, if someone powerful really wants to know who you are they likely can unless you take steps to be deliberately anonymous.

      Having being a whistle blower myself, and got away with it remaining anonymous you do have to take extra steps to remain anonymous. Some include using anonymous wireless where no cameras exist, don’t use a computer you don’t have exclusive control, buy the computer cash so the MAC to user is untraceable, using Internet proxies and throw away mail accounts, examine material submitted as not to be traced by to you individually, being anonymus is easy but needs care in doing so. Me, I turned the CEO onto some high level management corruption and in 6 months the corrupted manager was gone.

      Its why NSA/CIA/CSEC and mafia like Rizzuto collects dirt on people, it allows more control of the corrupt people. Polticians do it all the time, if an opponent needs to be moved aside, ask, what dirt do we have on him?

    • So… what’s your real name?

  8. Read Goldenberg timeline to see the vile hatred spewing from. Oh wait, he is making money saying only others do that.

  9. Wow. You sure remove posts you don’t like quickly. So much for discussion.

  10. Anonymous posting is needed as much and like free speech. You bet people get persecuted for telling truths, just look at Assange, Brown, Snowdon and others.

    System is corrupt and the back room might call your employers and you see the next run of layoffs. And about the only reason governemtn fires anyone is for telling the truths to outsiders.

    Its why I became vocal on my thoughts AFTER I was retired as I saw enough back room dirt to know it exists.

    Media is even closing comments on stories to prevent logic, facts and contrary opinions as if we are government managed sheep (Macleans isn’t as bad here). Hey, I may not like some of other peoples opinions, but I am smart enough to know if they muzzle them, when is my turn for the muzzle.

    Sure, some is hateful garbage of idiocy, but muzzling them also muzzles the honest people exposing corruption and real truths that the corrupt people want to hide. Suck it up, have some confidence and discard the garbage, but don’t myopically profess censorship and the loss of anonymous. But in a politically correct system of politically corrupt you can too easily discard truths for deception and feel good.

    I am adamantly against censorship and eliminating anonymity. It just fosters corruption, crime, deception and why so man back room and politicians fear the Internet. How dare the people know what is REALLY going on is their attitude. You want freedom and liberty, better not support this diatribe.

  11. Just my opinion, but aren’t people more likely to show their true colours when posting under a registered name? On the other hand, I’ve read some interesting submissions by other anonymous commenters regarding certain situations, retail scams, behind-the-scenes type of stuff in various fields of industry. We all have the option of flagging other posts that may be found unsuitable anyway. Just because I may disagree with someone it doesn’t mean I want to throw their perspective out the window.

  12. Sounds like a group of people slowly talking themselves out of the concept of free speech. “Well, it’s vanishing, so I’d better start the ‘new believing process’ of telling myself (and others) why it’s good that it’s vanishing!”

  13. Shhhh! Don’t tell anybody that I’m being sneaky and posting anonymously. I feel a bit like a rebel ……………………………..and it’s kind of fun. Wheeeee!!

  14. “They made a deliberate choice to use the suffering of others as a springboard for their venom. Why shouldn’t they be held to account for their own words?”
    Pardon me Adam but isn’t that exactly what you’re doing with this column? In fact isn’t that what reporters do on a daily basis in thousands of newspapers worldwide? It appears that the only difference is that you profit from it while anonymous posters don’t.

  15. Hypothetical

    So if someone identifies themselves as ‘John Smith’ which may in fact be their real name – explain to me how that would be beneficial to anyone except for some nefarious type who’s off his meds and decides to come after the wrong John Smith
    because he’s pretty damn sure it’s the same god damned John Smith a block down the road who annoys him with the chainsaw most every Saturday morning, cause um…”he talks just like that” What then?
    Are you going to tell the Smith family – “Geez…sorry about that…but when’s
    John coming out of the hospital? Here’s a Swiss Chalet coupon for you
    and the kids.”

    Pssssstttt…”I see lawsuits”

    I’d say you could narrow it down by also giving your address but Goldenberg has already proven he’s none too keen about that kind of disclosure.

    Yale is it? Curious.

  16. Cowards are those that want to muzzle us like chickens as to manage us like chickens while pretending to represent us.

    They can’t tell the truth and why the back room wants censorship and anonymous elimination as to make sure Assange, Brown, Snowdon and others can not tell us the TRUTH. Gag orders, muzzling, censorship…if the twitter idiots don’t want the tweets, use the options not to allow it to you own accounts.

    Gay or not, politicians are in my opinion often self important narcissistic scum.

    Politically correct is ultimately political corruption. People are entitled to their own opinions even if I disagree with them, as when they muzzle people I don’t like, I am mature and wise enough to know, they will get around to muzzling me. So I support anonymous, just like the government supports dirty little secrets.

    But hey, if George Smitherman and others want anonymous removed, if it includes making every bit of information, including the dirt the government hides from us who pay for it, public with names…like who’s name is on missing $3 billion in CF…..only then can anonymous be eliminated. Also remove anonymous for under age criminals, and which politicans, parole board memebers and all….even who cleared the mafia check.

    Biggest anonymous offender i government and its politicians. Rizzuto knew that.

  17. I could be wrong but I believe Ezra Levant used his own name while tweeting idiotic and vile remarks about Peloso and Smitherman.

    But I suppose Ezra’s already halfway to anonymous, and picking up speed. Let us mention his name no more.

  18. Ok, I think we’re done here. Who’s being vile now? “I love Christians I just don’t think they should be allowed to have sex get married or adopt children.”

    What little sympathy I had is certainly gone now. Now FO.

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