NPR reports that an increasing number of news sites — in the interest of reducing trolls and personal attacks — are requiring commenters to disclose their real names. How do they verify that a person is using their offline identity? By requiring them to login via leading social network Facebook. As one Los Angeles Times editor points out, Facebook is rigorous about deleting fake accounts:
I’m impressed at Facebook’s efforts at authentication. It’s for real. You know, if I were just to join up on Facebook, for example, to leave a comment, and I made up a name, chances are it would not show up …
As the emerging de facto standard for verifying identity online, this puts Facebook in a powerful position, something akin to the consumer credit agencies. The lords of the digital frontier are convinced this fills a necessary gap in cyberspace. As Google chairman Eric Schmidt said last year,
One of the errors that the Internet made a long time ago is that there was not an accurate and non-revocable identity-management service … And the best example of an identity-management service today that’s reasonably reliable is Facebook.
The scary, dystopian sound of “non-revocable identity-management” aside, many are concerned that the loss of pseudonyms will result in a move away from a great literary tradition — and a political one, too. Consider the storied Federalist and more obscure Anti-Federalist Papers, where men used names from classical antiquity — Publius, Cato, Brutus — both to shield their identity and draw historical parallels with their cause.
Certainly today’s online trolls are not easily comparable with the debates of the early republic. But there might be another reason to keep pseudonymous online handles: they remind us that despite hopes that the online public sphere is a boon for democratic discourse, it is in fact an imperfect, mediated experience, one that enables distortions and half-truths.
So while I’m not the first to be annoyed by anonymous public criticism on a signed post, there is perhaps some indirect benefit to letting people stay in the shadows.