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Dealing with online incivility

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Offline Phil

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Dealing with online incivility
« April 08, 2017, 08:01:23 PM »
If you ever read the online "letters" sections of major newspapers and news channels, you will see that only a tiny fraction of postings are thoughtful, fair, and civil. Most content is trash, trolling, flaming, and personal attacks. The same often goes for any other semi-public forum, unless the owner is willing to rule with an iron hand.

How do people get away with this? It's simple — almost no one shows their real name or location, and are effectively anonymous. Behind the mask of anonymity, they can operate without any of the usual social constraints that would restrain them if they were talking to someone face-to-face. They can become fast and loose with their facts, their insults, their prejudices, and whatever else gets eyeballs, clicks, and ad revenue for the sites; all without any risk of getting a fist in the face. Thus, society spirals down the drain and becomes coarser and coarser.

The only solution is to somehow force everyone to show their true and verified name and address with every post they make. When they register to post on a site, their name and address would be collected and stored, and automatically added to each post. No one would be able to hide behind a false name and spew out trash. So, how to verify the name and address? I see two parts to this: one, to provide a credit card for a small one-time charge, and two, sending a confirmation code via snail mail to the given name and address. If a false name and address were given, or an invalid or stolen credit card used, the applicant would never receive the confirmation code, and would be stopped. The code would have to be entered once (it might be a one-use password, which would then have to be changed for further access). From that point on, the world will see what you write, and be able to tie it to a real person (you), who presumably will then be quite careful about what you write. Of course, even if you a scrupulously fair, factual, and even-handed; there is still the risk that someone will be offended.

Could someone get around this to verify either a false name and address, or someone else's name and address that they wish to cause trouble for? Perhaps, but in the latter case they would have to have stolen their victim's credit card, and intercept their (snail) mail to get the confirmation code. Possible, but not terribly likely. Are there any other steps that could be added to decrease the chances of registering a false identity? A periodic refresh or renewal (perhaps a mailing of a new confirmation code) might be done every 6 to 12 months, to catch people who have moved but haven't bothered to update their address (a new code would be mailed) and haven't closed their account.

Finally, what could be done for people who can't give a true name and address for genuine fear of harassment — judges and prosecutors, people fleeing abusive spouses, etc.? These people might be allowed to register a proxy (false) name and address, but would be on file with law enforcement so that they can't abuse the privilege. If a judge, say, determines that they are posting offensive material about someone, their real name and address could be released to their victim.

Would this system work? If everyone has to walk on eggshells for fear of offending someone, is that good or bad? Online discourse would certainly be of higher tone, but would this lead to excessive self-censorship?