Reality Check: About the pitfalls of anonymity

Reality Check About the

When saying the Al Het prayer next week on Yom Kippur, perhaps talkbackers and bloggers should add an extra line, asking for God's forgiveness for all the anonymous invective they've indiscriminately spewed out over the past year. It's true - dare I say even for this column - that reading talkbacks can often be more fun than reading the actual article itself, but sometimes the malice behind the comments is deeply disturbing. I personally have no complaints; the worst my critics have come up with is to label me "a self-hating Jew" for daring to question the wisdom of continuing the occupation of the West Bank or imploring me to "go back where you came from." This latter statement, you have to admit, is a strange argument from somebody who no doubt views himself as more Zionist than me, and who should therefore want as many Jews as possible in Israel, regardless of their politics. But sometimes talkbackers and bloggers get really personal, as New York model Liskula Cohen found earlier this year. Labeled "an old hag" in an anonymous blog, she went to the Manhattan Supreme Court and successfully forced Google to reveal the person behind the blog in a precedent-setting ruling. Rosemary Port, the revealed author of the now shut-down "Skanks in NYC" blog, meanwhile, threatened to take Google to court for outing her, with her lawyer arguing: "Our Founding Fathers wrote The Federalist Papers under pseudonyms. Inherent in the First Amendment is the right to speak anonymously. Shouldn't that right extend to the new public square of the Internet?" It's an interesting argument and yes, the advantages of the anonymity the Internet provides do outweigh the disadvantages more often than not. In more repressive societies, anonymity is vital for those wanting to criticize the system while preserving their own safety. In our world, writing vicious anonymous talkbacks is generally more harmless, akin to the frustrated football fan screaming abuse from the safety of the crowd at a professional athlete he would not dare to challenge in person. If a public figure or writer can't take the criticism leveled at him, no matter how undeserving or crude the comment, then he shouldn't really be strutting his stuff in public. At the same time, however, ad hominem attacks, rather than attempts to tackle the issue under debate, are dispiriting and cheap. One wonders whether talkbackers or bloggers would be so keen to stick their keyboard knives into their targets if they knew their identity was open to all. I enjoy sharing my articles with family and friends - do my more shallow critics find any satisfaction in showing off their (almost invariably badly spelled and ungrammatical) invective to their children? THERE IS, of course, another level of concern over hate-inspired talkbacks and blogs and that is the atmosphere of incitement they create. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu edges toward some form of settlement freeze and the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians, those on the far-right will no doubt begin to start demonizing him and his ministers. In fact, the implicit threats have already begun. At the recent "solidarity with the settlers" gathering held at the Likud's headquarters, Gershon Mesika, head of the Samaria Regional Council, warned Netanyahu: "The Land of Israel does not forgive those who lift a hand against it, as both recent and distant history has shown." Shockingly, no one in the audience, even among the invited MKs, uttered a word of protest on hearing this. The murder of Yitzhak Rabin did not occur in a vacuum. Yigal Amir did not wake up one morning and decide, out of the blue, to shoot the prime minister. In the weeks and months preceding the murder, Rabin was the target of incessant vitriol which far exceeded the bounds of permissible political debate or protest. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that Netanyahu, then the Likud leader, was at the infamous Zion Square rally in Jerusalem where Rabin was called a traitor, or that he also led a demonstration in Ra'anana at which a full-size coffin was displayed, bearing the slogan "Rabin is killing Zionism." Although Netanyahu himself never called Rabin a traitor, he did nothing to calm the opponents of Oslo or attempt to rein in the vitriol. The violence of this period, which ended in the assassination of a prime minister, began with words, particularly the labeling of Rabin as a traitor. Back then, there were no talkbacks or blogs to heat up the political arena or create virtual communities of like-minded zealots; today such hatred whizzes around the Internet with worrying speed. If Netanyahu, in his speech later this week at the UN General Assembly, again pledges to recognize the creation of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, he will come under heavy criticism from some on the right, and the blogs and talkbacks will fizz with argument. Right-wing criticism of Netanyahu will be legitimate - so long as it remains focused on the argument and not the person. But wouldn't it be better if the person sounding off against the prime minister has the courage of his convictions, and does so under his own name, rather than hide behind a pseudonym or fake e-mail address? The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.