The ethics of anonymous online commenting:
Anonymous comments have almost no value and almost no place in a free society. That’s my conclusion after nearly fourteen years in an occupation which generates regular anonymous comments. As a preacher, I’ve received unsigned remarks on attendance cards, scraps of paper, letters in the mail or congregational feedback instruments. Just last week I was shown a letter with no return address and no signature. Scrawled in purple crayon, it warned that our congregation was headed straight to hell (someone buy that critic a pen please!)
But there are problems with comments made in anonymity. They don’t allow the individual to take responsibility for his/her words. Under the cloak of privacy the unknown author can toss words like grenades and not worry about the mess left behind. And they don’t always create useful communication. The author doesn’t have to struggle to find words the fit the context and communicate clearly to a diverse audience. It can be one of the laziest and thus often the most ineffective form of communication.
Regarding speech, two things are clear in the Bible. First, words have power. The Bible’s first book contains an image of God speaking the cosmos into existence. The Bible’s last book contains an image of Jesus with a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. And in between, the Bible is filled with words—words which the Hebrew author promises can pierce even our soul. Words have power.
Second, we are responsible for our words. Proverbs is packed with admonition from father to son to use the tongue wisely. Paul urges Christians to speak only what is good for building others up and never to use words that tear down. We are challenged to take responsibility for the powerful words that fall from our lips and keyboards.
But in most circumstances, anonymous comments hinder this from happening. When I write anonymously, I am unfettered by courtesy and unrestrained by sensitivity. I can unleash my worst words on the paper. My reputation, character or standing in the community no longer act as a buffer between what I’d like to say and what I should say. I do not contribute in a meaningful way as a real and known person to the larger dialogue.
For this reason, my first step with statements sent in unmarked mail is toward the shredder. My first reaction with words written without a signature is to trash them. And as a church leadership, we don’t accept unsigned congregational feedback forms.
The shield of anonymity may be needed in societies in which an author or speaker may fear for her life if her words are traced back to her street address. But this is rarely the case in the U.S. today.
So, if you’re going to speak or write, don’t do in in the dark. Turn on the light. Be proud to call your words your own. Give us a name and a face. It’s one of the best ways to help guarantee that your words reach their greatest potential.