In the old days, back before “Benghazi!” was how Republicans responded to someone sneezing and Ted Cruz was just a twinkle in the Tea Party’s eye, I was a blogger at Huffington Post. Back then, there had never been an African American President of the United States though a young and determined Senator named Barack Obama was boldly vying for that mantle. Osama Bin Laden was comfortably relaxing in his Pakistan complex and tens of millions of Americans had no prayer of getting health insurance while those who had it struggled with skyrocketing premiums, being denied benefits and kicked off their plans when they most needed it.
George Bush was President of the United States, torturing detainees through water-boarding and torturing Americans by blowing up their economy, jobs and home ownership.
In those stressful times, there were a number of good political blogs for Progressives fighting against the Bush regime and for a better future for the country. As it turned out, I chose to focus on the one by the name Huffington Post. As I acclimated to the site, I was very impressed with the number of well-informed and insightful folks there. Among them (and there were too many to list here) were HumeSkeptic, ThunderclapNewman and of course our own KQuarksSuperCollider and Kalima.
Though bigger, HP was then as The Planet is today, a community with many independent thinkers who sometimes agreed, sometimes argued but held a modicum of respect in most cases for each other. Trolls were not welcome and those who would descend on the site to disrupt threads and goad others were flagged by members and pretty swiftly booted.
Sounds like a sweet and nostalgic story now.
Here’s a somewhat brief overview on the evolution of Huffington Post from that point forward. Arianna Huffington, as a highly opportunistic and ambitious businesswoman first (not a bad thing except she did cloak herself in Progressive clothes to exploit Progressives for her profit) leveraged the heightened activity at the site, due to the Presidential election in 2008, to secure a $25 million investment from the hedge fund, Oak Investment Partners.
In the midst of negotiations, a controversy had erupted about a crass post at the site by a member and was elevated by Republicans as an MSM “news” item and a black eye for HP. Anxious to stomp out that fire that might impact her getting that $25 million, Arianna embarked on a total lockdown of the site, instituting a “moderation” tactic on most articles to block all comments and filter out those seen as undesirable, a policy that is now commonly used and (unfortunately) accepted as SOP. She also began a mass purge of members at the site that was somewhat indiscriminate, to clamp down on what had been pretty much free expression, especially those comments which might be too harsh, controversial or too anti-corporate/wealthy for the comfort of their new prospective hedge fund partners.
This led to much uproar and a big exodus from Huffington Post to other established Progressive sites and fueled the startups of a variety of smaller Progressive sites that welcomed free expression (such as The Planet). As 2009 continued, the powers that be at Huffington Post recognized that by allowing Right Wing trolls to post more freely at the site, the Progressives they intentionally antagonized would spend more time at the site “troll bashing” and trying to prove them wrong, which increased traffic and ad rates. So, the previous prohibition against trolls was essentially lifted (though moderation and banning continued in some more extreme cases) and Huffington Post became the blogging equivalent of PBS Meets WWE Wrestling.
Many longtime Huffington Post members were unhappy with the now-constant moderation of their comments and the permitting of ugly attacks and baiting by Right Wing trolls and their protests about the site grew. Arianna realized that this was a problem and something had to be done so comments criticizing her and Huffington Post were typically “moderated” and another purge of longtime members was launched. The apparent view was that getting rid of those who knew how much better things used to be and populating the site more with members who didn’t know any differently and thus had nothing to complain about, made for a smoother profit-making vehicle for Arianna and her hedge fund partners.
Then came 2011 and the purchase of Huffington Post for a reported $315 million dollars by AOL. The corporatization of Huffiington Post naturally accelerated, the focus on appealing to the lowest common denominator in people to churn the greatest profit also became more prominent. The level of discourse became more base and toxic as traffic grew higher and stories about nip slips and Kardashians had a regular home on the front page. This led initially to many members leaving the site but as time went by, many drifted back to it.
But a funny thing started happening. People were leaving the site from emotional and mental exhaustion, the endless fights and hatred being expressed took a toll on some who just didn’t want that toxicity in their lives anymore. And they weren’t being replaced quickly enough. Added to that, there was greater competition from the growth of Facebook and Twitter and the growth of Huffington Post/AOL wasn’t continuing as anticipated.
In empowering the Right Wing trolls and embedding intense and upsetting conflict in the site, Arianna and AOL had created a Frankenstein that had generated great profits previously but now was becoming a threat to their bottom line. The negativity of the site was now cutting against future growth and something had to be done.
So Arianna announced earlier this year that all members would be required to post under their own names, in order to discourage people from posting offensive comments anonymously. All members would have to submit to identity verification through their Facebook account. The backlash was huge and severe, many longtime members were upset by the requirement that they give up anonymity in order to post at Huffington Post.
Arianna and HP soon backpedaled, claiming they were just going to require personal identification from new members and existing members would have nothing to worry about, they could keep their anonymity.
When I reported on Arianna’s initial announcement here at PlanetPOV, I received an email from someone I had considered as a friend at HP and who had also joined in here for a while. She had become one of the enlisted members at HP who helps moderate threads and had become quite a passionate devotee to Arianna and Huffington Post. She expressed strong resentment towards my article because after it was posted, Arianna had announced this modification of only new members having to provide personal identification. It was her contention that I was maliciously spreading untruths about HP by not removing or re-editing the initial at-the-time factual article…even though WAPO, NYT and other publications had published similar stories and of course didn’t re-edit or pull them either. What I found amusing was the insult she offered, that by not pulling or changing that article, PlanetPOV was acting as badly as Huffington Post.
Anyone who knows a little bit about journalism knows that there are many reasons why you don’t go back and continually re-edit an original story as developments arise, you simply write new stories about the developments. This is because the original story stands as a snapshot of the facts at a particular point in time…and sometimes…it is a snapshot that turns out to be just as accurate in portraying the future as it did the past.
This week, Arianna Huffington and Huffington Post betrayed their membership and their questionable promise to continue providing anonymity to their current members by requiring ALL members to provide verification of their personal identity if they want to post at the site. ALL members are now required to submit their Facebook account to Huffington Post if they want to post comments. Seems that not-very-sincere-sounding backpedaling by Arianna turned out to be just what it sounded like.
I know that there are many folks out there that are not concerned about losing their anonymity, who feel they have nothing to hide and maybe even support this attempt to restrict trolls. I respect their perspective and none of this is meant as a diss against them.
My problem with this is multi-dimensional. To begin, do you really want Huffington Post, AOL and any corporate or political entities they are connected with or support now or in the future, having a complete profile of exactly who you are and what exactly your political views are? Extrapolate how might that become an issue in the future for you and an asset to those corporations and political groups (or even administrations) that could be given access to that information. Sounds like total profiling snack food for the NSA too.
Secondly, part of what gives many bloggers the freedom to fully express themselves is the anonymity that shields them from repercussions at work and in their personal life. There are many who readily post strong opinions at HP who would never post such opinions on Facebook, so as not to upset others or bring conflict upon themselves. If your Facebook ID appears on every comment you write at Huffington Post, just how free will you feel to genuinely express yourself on controversial issues? Abortion, racism, the Tea Party, just how open will you want to be when those who don’t like your views can track you down?
Which leads to the third and most worrisome issue. I know of people who have already been cyber-stalked and horribly harassed for posting their opinions on HP…even before their identity and Facebook page was linked to their HP account. What about the concern for personal safety? If you post a strongly worded comment against Right Wingers in general or suppose you confront a troll on the site…by being able to see your Facebook identity (even if partial), it would make it far easier for a determined hater to track you down. Even if HP was to cloak your Facebook ID in the future, just knowing that everyone on HP is also on Facebook would allow a stalker the opportunity to troll through all of your comments to seek out personally identifying information then go to Facebook and look for a likely match.
This is the kind of policy that comes from corporate thinking. It works for them as a broad, dumb tool, to hopefully tamp down in one fell swoop, the element at the site that has been depressing traffic, the hate speech, but at a cost of everyone’s anonymity and perhaps in some cases, their personal safety.
Corporations want control and information and that’s what this policy gives Huffington Post/AOL in a huge way. Though it is not likely intended to be so, it is anti-blogger, anti-free-speech and anti-security. At the very least, in HPAOL’s database, your political views will now be married to your personal identity (who you are, who your family and friends are, what causes you’ve “liked”) and you will have no idea how that potent information might be used or sold in the future. It also throws a bucket of cold water on free expression at HP. Some members will be less likely to openly speak their minds while continuing to freely express their opinions on controversial issues could open up other members to ongoing harassment in their online and personal lives.
Anonymity is a crucial component of blogging for most people who aren’t professional bloggers. This is not their job, they have a real job out there and their coworkers, clients or bosses could be Tea Partiers or anti-abortion or anti-gay. They don’t necessarily want any of those folks to know their personal opinions on sensitive issues because of the blowback they could get from it.
To evade this infringement on privacy, some folks may set up bogus Facebook accounts and though that may help shield them for the time being at HP, their IP addresses will be linked to that Facebook account so there will be a trail back to them (unless they know how to securely hide their IP address) that may or may not be made available to HPAOL or others in the future (or to the NSA now).
What I can say in closing is that the issues and principles that drove KQuark, Kalima and I from Huffington Post all those years ago remain fully intact here at The Planet. PlanetPOV will ALWAYS protect our members’ anonymity because we believe it is a necessary component of free expression on the web. It’s also a matter of respect, security and peace of mind. Those of ill will should not be given a potential road map to seek out and harass anyone whose opinions upset them.
In our opinion, Freedom of Expression and the protection of anonymity of members at a blog should always be top priorities. At The Planet, they always have been and they will always continue to be.