The role of anonymity in fomenting online bullying was a central topic at a panel discussion on freedom and the Internet hosted by the John Templeton Foundation Tuesday night. But although the event took place in the physical space of the Harvard Club, not in cyberspace, and although all present wore name tags, the discourse still threatened to grow uncivil when Deborah Solomon of The New York Times asked the two panelists, Lee Siegel and Ron Rosenbaum, whether their diatribes against the nastiness of the cyber-mob didn't amount to the whining of journalists unused to direct feedback from readers.
"We've never really been aware before of the gap between what we think of our work and what other people think," said Solomon. "Is what we're really talking about -- our woundedness?"
Her question drew applause from audience members, but a withering rebuttal from Siegel, who famously overreacted to his own online hecklers when, in 2006, he adopted a false identity to go after them in the comments section of The New Republic's website, a decision that earned him a suspension from his duties there. Siegel continues to justify his actions in that episode as self-defense, saying one commenter had gone so far as to accuse him of being a pedophile. He donned his pseudonym, he said, "in the manner of an advocate of gun control who's about to be shot and seizes the gun for himself."
"In response to your Pollyanna-ish belief that journalists deserve to be defamed and libeled," he said to Solomon, she only was able to hold that view because she works for a publication that rigorously polices its comment boards. "At the Times, you're protected from it. Maybe you would be less tolerant" if she inhabited a more rough-and-tumble digital world. "When AngryBoy123 is writing '[expletive] this' and [expletive] that,' that's not telling you what he thinks of your work."
The Times may curb its commenters' excesses, but Solomon, as the author of the much read "Questions For..." column in the Sunday magazine, is a frequent target of criticism, some of it from inside the paper. I asked her after the discussion whether she agreed with Siegel that Times writers are "protected" from digital mob rage.
"No, of course not, because there are other places for people to attack Times journalists, such as every website in existence which the Times does not monitor. The Times is not some giant police organization that monitors Web content. But on the other hand, I feel like hostile comments have always existed. . . . You can't expect everybody to love your work. Your mother is the only one who will love you for your blond hair."
"My mother?" asked a confused Siegel, who had just walked up to Solomon.
"No, mothers," she said. "One's mother. Writers have, I think, an illusion that they're being understood-"
"But the Times is protected, Deborah," Siegel interjected.
"No, they're not-"
Crosstalk. Siegel turned to me. "Have you tried to get a comment on the Times?"
"Have a look at my Wikipedia entry," said Solomon. "The criticism section is longer than the criticism section on Hitler's Wikipedia entry. It is."
I asked Siegel why, if insulting comments bother him so much, he bothers to read them. "I don't read them anymore," he said. "We're talking about the past...I don't think commenters -- I don't think that's a problem anymore. I think it's been institutionalized, absorbed, ritualized. The anger has subsided in the Obama years. That's not my bugbear, anonymous commenting. I just don't think it's a problem.
"But I do think at the Times, it's a protected environment. You should try to put a comment on there. It's different, getting attacked on a blog and getting attacked on your home turf."
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