Lots of people have predicted that digital media will lead to the demise of traditional media, but I never imagined it might happen like this: on Friday the Commission on Student Affairs at Virginia Tech recommended that the university cut off funding for all student media following controversy over racist comments on the school newspaper's Web site. Thankfully the university is not going to implement this Stalinist solution, but the mere fact that it was suggested -- by students, no less! -- and apparently considered is pretty disturbing.
The background: like anyone who hangs a media shingle out on the Internets, the Web site of the Virginia Tech school paper, the Collegiate Times, has racked up its share of offensive comments posted by the dregs of our online society, always anonymously of course (call them the faceless tasteless). Predictably, these comments have insulted and enraged the people they were supposed to insult and enrage. The question then becomes: to censor or not to censor? How much?
While there have been plenty of debates about free (hate) speech on college campuses, these obviously got a new twist with the advent of social media. Before, if someone wanted to say something outrageously offensive and they had any guts at all, they had to just stand up and say it, so everyone could identify them as the origin of the remark (or sending a signed letter to the school newspaper, on the off chance they would publish it). If they were cowards, as most bigots seem to be, they still had to run some risk getting caught to draw attention to their misspelled, spittle-flecked rantings -- leaving graffiti, posting flyers, etc.
Now the cowards have it easy: they can sling their B.S. at the world without leaving their rooms or printing out a single sheet of paper, let alone donning sweatpants for a round of late-night hate-flyering. This naturally arouses some indignation, and in the case of the Collegiate Times drew a demand from the Virginia Tech student committee that the paper end anonymous posting or lose its funding, which might mean the end of the whole thing, print newspaper and all.
It seems this ill-advised demand was issued partly in the hope that the paper would agree to a compromise: specifically, keeping online posting but requiring people to identify themselves. If this is the case, it is unrealistic because anyone determined to post an online comment anonymously will always be able to do so. So the question becomes: is it worth keeping anonymous commenting if it allows people to post their hateful spewings? Or should you just cut them altogether?
Of course, this question distracts from the real value of online commenting: anonymous or otherwise, most of the comments the newspaper Web site gets over the course of the year are probably not racist or otherwise objectionable, and they may in fact be part of civil, constructive dialogue, which supposedly still happens out there somewhere, on occasion. Even if most of the commenters were hateful, what would be gained by allowing them to silence the few who weren't? Moreover the function of anonymity can be extremely valuable to the community: what about the anonymous tipsters, the whistle-blowers, the "snitches" who don't want to get beat up or killed or go to the police?
Above all, however, it's a bad idea to silence anonymous comments because even offensive comments are, in fact, enlightening: after you read an offensive comment, you have learned that someone out there cared enough to commit it to the digital discourse forever and forever. While this may shock, dismay, and upset us, it is also a useful corrective, preventing us from blinding ourselves to the realities of our society, which includes, yes, a good number of warped individuals. Maybe this isn't the most inspiring message to end with, but I for one am glad that anonymous posting exists, because it is all too easy to forget or minimize the existence of the faceless tasteless. And these people, who exist in the millions if not tens of millions ("birthers," anyone?) are a genuine menace; so let them speak, and listen carefully, so that we may better know our enemy, and always be on our guard.