It would be nice if the epl.ee policy could be dismissed as a not very successful experiment in a desperately competitive market, a quaint effort by one gatekeeper (certainly not superior to other papers) to re-invest the medium with a cachet of respectability. And indeed, certainly it has not been successful -- in ten days, the public discussion has completely evaporated on epl.ee with the exception of a few in-house people and shills trying to get something going.
But the thing is, it's not just epl.ee. The movement to ban anonymous comments has been accompanied by a great amount of pamphleteering by a group of people it would not be unfair to describe as ideological zealots -- Ilmar Raag, Anvar Samost, and so on, clutching manifestos arguing for the end of trolls and the dawn of a new age of ethics. A one-soul, one-identity, one serial-number policy. There are literally reams of tracts online justifying the decision. It's all a bit much. The people who brought you the end of comments on EPL seem to want a broader cultural revolution where all anonymous commenting on news sites is ended. Probably it's the only way epl.ee could be successful -- as long as there are free-for-all comment forums, people will gravitate there, not to epl.ee.
The timing for snuffing out public dialogue on epl.ee is undoubtedly poor, on the background of perceived political disenfranchisement, in the middle of a recession, with a Reform government that seems afraid to lose power, and unemployment increasing. Sentiment against involvement in Afghanistan is high -- another inconvenience for politicians, including the President, whose empty platitudes about "fallen heroes" are routinely mocked in online comments sections of Estonian newspapers. Devaluation fears have not gone away...or rather, they have tbeen transformed into the conventional wisdom that when Estonia finally switches to the euro, it may not be at the current 15.646 kroon peg. To the establishment, it could be argued, online comments sections are a dangerous nuisance, a place for radicals to gather, spread fear and dissent with impunity. Journalists' articles themselves are often sloppy these days, and comments sections are often better-informed. Almost every other comments section I see includes a correction of fact "phoned in" by a reader.
Is the fear of anonymity and unknown avatars justified? Is anonymous commenting really impoverishing discussion or turning newspapers into a bathroom stall?
Sure, there are pragmatic and idealistic arguments against anonymity, too. First of all, news sites have their own asses to cover, as it were.The Supreme Court ruled last year that they can be held responsible for what posters post.
Libellous comments are hard to police. I do understand the concern about individual reputations. It's easy to pass off hurtful statements in a sneaky way, or to repeat hearsay. Take the Supreme Court case, which concerned Vjatsheslav Leedo, a ferry owner who was accused falsely by a commentator of dumping prostitutes overboard on the Saaremaa line. He sued successfully and the website had to pay damages, but the damage was done. Statements can be nested in many ways to blemish a person's reputation or restaurant. People argue how many hookers there were -- after all, they were forgotten women no one cared about -- and the thing can get out of control. Of course everyone knows Leedo didn't dump any prostitutes; if indeed he hasn't stopped beating his wife, maybe she planted the story about the dead hookers?
The above is a extreme joke, of course. No one has any idea what was really claimed about Leedo because it has been scrubbed so thoroughly from the public record. Personally, my anonymous avatar thinks he's a major asshole for being so hung-up about his reputation -- as another blogger might say, "ur doing it wrong if you get trashed in a public forum". It could well have been that the original offensive comment was something on the order of "LEEDO IS AN ASSHOLE", perhaps in all caps. Always a good debating strategy -- screaming your opinion makes it more compelling, doesn't it.
But this brings up an important point. Perhaps other people's experience is different, but although the comment forums are often derided as offensive to the maximum degree, I have never seen a comment on an Estonian site that is truly vile and repulsive -- I have never been even close to hitting a "report" or "complain" link -- whereas I can go to the movies at Coca-Cola Plaza and see Antichrist, which is probably far worse than anything that has appeared, even on delfi.ee. I don't see anything that's truly persuasive. On Postimees, the audience can "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" comments. This is a sort of vox populi that keeps things a bit real.
So I really don't see the spectres that other people see. I don't think Internet comments have the capacity to galvanize or radicalize our thinking and incite mass hatred. Not in a place like Estonia, which is highly rational-minded. I think trolls are not that clever. It can't happen, unless the troll is also moderator. People aren't stupid.
Can I prove it? No. But can the other side prove that anonymity can lead to radical thought-mobs running around with conceptual firebrands? No.
Of course, maybe I overestimate Estonia. I continue to suffer from this notion that Estonia is a libertarian, laissez-faire, intellectualy cool place where people don't get too hung up about perceived insults and salty language. Or monuments. I want Estonia to be a hip, progressive experiment. This is delusional. The truth is Estonia it has clearly distanced itself from such a direction and grown to be a rather serious and grown-up country. Alcohol is becoming frowned on in more and more settings. The Royalist Party is no longer playing jester in parliament. The headiness of the 1990s is long, long gone. Some of the humour is gone. (Not all -- Rein Lang, the minister most associated with the movement against anonymous comments a few years ago, once
The country's leading satirist Andrus Kivirähk recently released a collection of pieces writing under the nom de plume "God" and some people were miffed, even though it was just a reprint of pieces that had already appeared in the newspapers.
The topic of Kivirähk brings up an interesting question. If Kivirähk wrote a "God" piece for Päevaleht and wanted to reply to a reader in character, he could not do so. First, of course, he would have to jiggle his ID card in the slot and (if he's using a Mac) make sure Firefox downloads the right certificates, and then...finally the witty riposte from "God" would appear...well, under Andrus Kivirähk's real name. Another one of Kivirähk's characters would have a tougher time: Ivan Orav has a double strike against him, being dead and fictional...
I'm sure there's a solution for this -- to allow "God" to have a say without issuing him an ID card. But still, what a colossal drag. The hubris of these serious people who think they can resolve the problem of broken eggs by walking on eggshells...it's hard for me to take.