So Long, RTW: Obit of Anonymous Commenter

Homer Simpson, in his infinite wisdom, once famously declared alcohol “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” The same might be said of anonymous comments on blogs: the potential solution to, but often instead the cause of, all of digital journalism’s issues.

Both alcohol and anonymous comments are superfluous to a healthy diet, but can add a lot of texture and value to a meal or a post. Unfortunately, they also run the gamut from delicious to destructive. I’m prone to indulge in them both until their evils outweigh their benefits.

Such, I think, has become the case with RI Future’s most prolific commenter who goes by the moniker Right To Work. His contributions have long been mean-spirited, misleading and uninformed, but yesterday when they became potentially libelous (ED NOTE: after much debate, this commenter and I agreed that I would retract the statement about the comment being potentially libelous) he crossed a line that shouldn’t be tolerated – especially given how frequently we needed to remind him that he had again run afoul of our house rules.

But silencing someone, for whatever reason, is no small action. If you’re in the business of disseminating information, like RI Future is, it deserves both careful consideration as well as a diligent disclosure as to why.

First off, I should remind everyone that no one has a First Amendment right to speak wherever they wanted. If we did, I would sue the New York Times for not running my stuff on its front page. RTW has plenty of places he can spew his hate, so I’m not at all worried about violating his rights.

On the contrary, it’s him violating the rights of others I’m worried about.

In his incessant and constant attempts to smear the left on RI Future, he likened local teachers’ unions officials to murderous mobsters. A statement not nearly as libelous as it is ridiculous but not at all a risk worth given it meets both thresholds. I’ve personally warned RTW on several occasions to attack ideas rather than people. Like you’d expect of a four-year-old, he would counter that others were guilty as well. (And here I was thinking that a component of conservative values was personal responsibility. Guess not as far as RTW is concerned.)

Furthermore, the Spokesman-Review in Tacoma, Wash. is being sued for defending the anonymity of an equally ridiculous and potentially-libelous comment that appeared in their comment section, reports NPR. It’s worth noting that if RTW thinks I would protect his anonymity he is putting more stock in my journalistic principles than he claims to in his comments.

That alone is reason enough to delete his account. But, sadly, there are other reasons.

RTW is the definitive internet troll. He comes to RI Future for no other reason than to besmirch our work and bemoan our ideas. Even the screen name he chose is a none-too-tacit fuck you to our product’s politics. His comments are often off-topic and off-color. They range from simple vitriol to misleading to patently false to debate damaging.

Which is too bad, because he seems to be one of the few conservatives willing to frequent our comments section. Open debate is definitely a progressive value, and I for one believe that the comments section of RI Future often boasts the best and most nuanced political debate in the local marketplace of ideas. Here’s hoping RI Future’s comments section can begin to attract a more intellectually honest foil (I’m looking at you, Jason Becker and Dawson Hodgson) and fewer like RTW.

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Bob Plain is the editor/publisher of Rhode Island's Future. Previously, he's worked as a reporter for several different news organizations both in Rhode Island and across the country.

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