New York Times Article Raises Concerns Over Hateful, Anonymous Speech

Bob Tedeschi writes an alarming piece in the New York Times that links hateful internet postings with the recent suicide of a Chicago Advertising Executive. From the page:

“Visitors to AgencySpy and AdScam, two sharp-tongued blogs written by advertising industry insiders, posted comments blaming the sites for contributing to the suicide late last month of Paul Tilley, 40, the creative director of DDB Chicago.

In so doing, bloggers and their readers added another chapter in a long debate about how, or whether, to manage anonymous posts that seem aimed at shredding a person’s reputation.”

Mr. Tilley’s tragic demise harkens back to the Megan Meier suicide that occurred last fall. Both individuals were driven, at least in part, to their deaths by hateful online speech. As one AdScam commenter posted: “I knew him. And I know that the vile attacks inflicted on him by you and others tortured his soul. He told me so.” What makes humiliating online speech so hurtful is that posts made anonymously allow users to vent offensive sentiments that they would never say in public. Additionally, online hate speech has a permanence that real world venom lacks.

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Clearly, it takes more than just online postings to drive a man to his death. But friends and relatives made it clear that these personal web-based attacks on private citizens do have real world consequences. Once again quoting from the article:

“An AgencySpy commentator who identified himself as Brian Stallings and said he was Mr. Tilley’s uncle wrote: ‘This is a sad world we live in where a person can express his/her opinion in a faceless blog (in my day a cowardly act) without any thought for their fellow human being. Please think of the hurt your words cause next time you have time to waste on a blog such as this.’

Another commentator, who identified himself as Mr. Michael, wrote: ‘Are there ethics in blogs? Should people have the right to publicly and anonymously criticize and attack the private lives of private people simply for entertainment? This guy wasn’t a politician or a movie star — he didn’t opportunistically cast himself into the public domain. He just made commercials.'”

This last point is perhaps most salient here. Who, if anyone, is responsible for hateful, anonymous online speech? What responsibility do web sites have to monitor comments on their URL? Are these legal issues or moral and ethical matters? The NYT posed this question to its readers and the responses were varied and persuasive.

Tom B from Vermont feels that websites should be responsible for the comments and content they host, writing “There are consequences to what we say and do on or off the Internet. Anonymity should not provide a pass on civility.” While Laird Wilcox of Kansas disagrees; “Anonymous political literature has been a cornerstone of political liberty and has been protected by the Supreme Court.”

As a group, we support free, responsible speech and have consistently advocated for a more informed and responsible exchange of ideas in digital space. Our entire team offers its sincere condolences to Mr. Tilley’s family and friends.

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