Online anonymity is the last refuge of cowards

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

<p>George Smitherman, left, and his husband Christopher Peloso wave as they leave Queens&#8217;s Park on Monday, Nov. 9, 2009 in Toronto. Peloso, the husband of former Ontario cabinet minister George Smitherman, has been found dead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette</p>

George Smitherman, left, and his husband Christopher Peloso wave as they leave Queens’s Park on Monday, Nov. 9, 2009 in Toronto. Peloso, the husband of former Ontario cabinet minister George Smitherman, has been found dead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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.