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Free speech is a right that has no room for cowardice

The Camp Verde Journal of Camp Verde, Arizona

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The Internet is a wondrous, shiny place. One can learn how to fix a transmission, the names of commanders from ancient battles and see photos of loved ones half a world away uploaded just seconds earlier. All this data is readily accessible with a few keystrokes, mouse taps and swipes of our thumbs.

One major problem with the Internet is a temporary psychological disorder known as the online disinhibition effect. When people can post anonymously, they tend to be more honest about their feelings and open emotionally, which lets people connect with others around the world, which is a bright and beautiful gift for our Information Age society.

However, this disinhibition also means people can be nasty or cruel, spread rumors and lies or spew their inner fear, racism, sexism or hate into vitriol for the world to see and recoil from. Many recent scandals involve elected officials, civic leaders and celebrities suffering from disinhibition effect and getting caught writing something hatefully or impulsively, ending their careers or destroying their reputations.

At public meetings, people meet face-to-face. In print, authors, journalists and publishers are required to sign their names to what they pen. But the Internet's anonymity gives people the false belief that the rules of libel, good behavior, honesty and fact-checking don't apply.

There are about a half-dozen blogs and online commenting boards in the Verde Valley. Many are linked to social media platforms. To a large extent, social media evades the online disinhibition effect because sites verify a person's identity by checking their email and/or phone number and they actively expel users proven to be false identities.

However, several other blogs and boards allow users to post anonymously or under unverified names, and much of the debate is not on the topics or the merits of opinions, but about who is actually who, and discrediting each other with ad hominem attacks.

Just because it's online doesn't make it true. Just because it includes numbers doesn't mean they're facts. Just because it comments on news, doesn't make it journalism. Much of the distrust in the fingerquote "media" stems from feelings about the slanted commentary by pundits, lobbyists, operatives with agendas and anonymous bloggers, not from an actual distrust in professional journalists — required by our ethics to stay unbiased — and editors — required by our ethical code to comment only on the facts reporters present.

If a website allows people to comment under false or unverified names, avoid it. If you want use it for discussion ask the website administrator to require users to link their comments to a verifiable social media platform. If they refuse, don't visit, or at least take every comment with a grain of salt.

If facts aren't sourced or footnoted for independent verification, don't trust it. If a post claims "people say" or "an official" or "a staff member" without naming names, don't trust it. If a quote can't be found elsewhere, it might not have been said. If an author doesn't have the courage to sign his or name to a "story," it's fruit from a poisoned tree and without any merit. Bottom line: If it's anonymous, it isn't journalism.

Our readers will note our stories and columns have bylines. Every letter writer must sign his or her name and provide our staff with a street address and telephone number so we can verify they exist before we print their opinion.

Americans don't allow witnesses to testify anonymously in court, so why would we rely on anonymity to shape public opinion? Free speech is a right with no room for cowardice.

Copyright 2015 The Camp Verde Journal, Camp Verde, Arizona. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: May 6, 2015

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