Anonymous Online Comments – Not So Anonymous Anymore

Recent court cases have forced online hosts such as Craigslist to divulge the identity of those posting damaging comments.  Other web sites forced to produce the names of anonymous posters are those engaged in naming bad doctors and bad teachers.  The question is — When does a comment cross the line between consumer protection and defamation?

Here’s a tip: If you’re making an online comment about someone and feel you must hide your identity, you’re probably about to cross the line in a bad way.

The court cases I’m referring to have been launched by individuals who see themselves as victims of malicious attacks.  The Internet has become THE forum for sharing information, learning, selling products, and – sometimes – for hurting others.  It can start with a simple difference of opinion and devolve into a barrage of personal attacks that go on for weeks or months.

Enter the Sock Puppet

A sock puppet is a false online identity used in a deceitful way to support an argument, to defend against critics, to promote a product, or to make oneself appear more popular.  It’s not about privacy — the intent is to deceive. This is a technique widely applied by those posting negative comments about another.  Lacking support from the online community, the poster creates a new identity – called a sock puppet – to write messages in agreement with their own views.  The hope is that their viewpoint will appear popular and will gain support or followers.  Some unscrupulous marketers use this as a scheme to create fake product endorsements.

Writing under a pseudonym or creating an online identity is not always a bad thing.  Privacy is a real concern and a need for some.  In recognition of this, most web registration pages ask one to create a user ID that will appear in lieu of one’s real name.  Creating a user ID is as harmless as the CB handle popularized in the 70’s. (For those readers too young to remember citizens’ band radio, this was an earlier form of social networking where it was considered bad form not to have a humorous or descriptive nickname – a handle – used in place of one’s real name.)  The difference is all about intent.

Litmus test

Before posting ask yourself the following questions.  Stop writing if any of these statements ring true:

  • I would be embarrassed if anyone found out I wrote this
  • I wouldn’t want my {spouse, brother, sister, child} to see my name associated with this comment
  • I have no proof to back up this allegation
  • This comment is designed to hurt someone or to exact revenge