The Price of Nasty

“You shall neither curse God nor put a curse upon a leader or your people.”

Exodus 22:27



“You are an obvious amateur in Talmud and rabbinic sources. Why show it off?” - comment on website posting of one of my articles. My first thought: what if it’s my eleventh grade Talmud teacher outing my ignorance? Second thought: it’s an anonymous comment filled with rancor and meanness. Get a life.

Many journalists I have spoken to never read writer comments. When asked why - since this should be excellent feedback for writers - their response is almost uniform: “I don’t take crazy people seriously.” Most readers who express themselves subtly and thoughtfully keep their thoughts to themselves, send a letter to the editor or find an alterative route to the author.

This dilemma brought me to the biblical verse above. Why do people curse God or their leaders? Two medieval commentators on this verse suggest that the six verses that come before are about the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. Perhaps in the rage over a personal situation that seems beyond their control, those who are vulnerable curse those they feel are responsible for their circumstances or could possibly do something to change them: God and their leaders. The two Hebrew words for “curse” used in the verse refer, according to some, to an act of defiance and an act of envy. We belittle people for different reasons.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, a Spanish medieval poet and exegete, says that the prohibition to curse God or leaders should be observed “both in private and in public.” It dawned on me that the internet combines the worst of both worlds; you diminish someone in private – anonymously – and then you press submit or send and it goes out into the largest public domain possible. The globe is now the stage for an unimaginable amount of cruelty.

Nation, we’ve got a problem. It’s now been called the nasty effect, and it is more than online incivility. We believe that people must express themselves freely and openly in a democratic state. But what we have not enforced is people taking ownership of what they say. Free speech must come with at least one pricetag: your name. If you are afraid to put your name to what you say – in virtually every instance – you should not be allowed to say it.

Why? Because we readers actually do take crazy people seriously. Recently two professors of science communication from University of Wisconsin studied the impact of reader comments on articles that appeared online. The New York Times published the research in a recent article called “This Story Stinks,” which opens with all of the benefits of the internet: its capacity to bridge geographic, cultural and economic distances and generate meaningful debate. Then, the article posits, “someone invented ‘reader comments,’ and paradise was lost.”

            These scientists were interested in what they call the nasty effect, the impact of reader comments on the way in which we frame and understand an issue presented online. By intentionally placing rude comments or curse words in fake reader comments, they discovered that most readers filtered their own attitudes to the material based on anonymous comments. Once upon a time we thought that reader comments created a more open, transparent dialogue, we now understand that such comments can have the pernicious effect of biasing innocent readers and possibly shutting down open conversation.

Michael Bernstein, a computer science professor at Stanford, was quoted in The Washington Post recently critiquing internet anonymity but also suggesting that it “fostered experimentation and new ideas” since users feel comfortable taking risks when no names are involved.

            The same Ibn Ezra mentioned above, however, points us to a companion verse in the book of Proverbs: “And do not mix with dissenters, for disaster comes from them suddenly…”(24:21). Political dissent is a necessity in creating a fair and just society, but let’s not confuse dissent with plain old anonymous meanness. New research may show this to be the ruin of us, not because crotchety people talk out of turn but because we listen to them.

            Or we can take the Tina Fey approach seriously when she tried to fight this phenomenon in protecting her reputation: “…you should have to put your real name, your address and a current photo” when posting a comment. It is time for more responsible journalism to protect the world of ideas and those who promote them. “Anonymous” just doesn’t work anymore.


Shabbat Shalom