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Online Anonymity Is Not The Same Thing As Free Speech

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As all the world knows by now, last week our president prepared for his big meeting with Vladimir Putin by receiving round-the-clock briefings on the history of U.S.-Russian relations, as well as the recent accords of the G-20.

Kidding!

Actually, he prepared by tweeting out a video of himself pretend-assaulting a man with a CNN logo superimposed over his head.

The obvious question here is why the leader of the free world — or any adult living outside his parents’ basement — would do such a thing. But we all know who Donald Trump is at this point. Expecting him to go more than a few days without trolling is like expecting a leech to go vegetarian.

What’s been more interesting to watch is the fallout, and in particular, the way that Trump’s fellow internet trolls have descended into self-pity at the first sign of public exposure.

As one might expect, media outlets did not take kindly to Trump’s tweet, and CNN soon tracked down the man who created the video and posted it on a Reddit site devoted to Trump worship.

The Constitution guarantees all Americans the right to free speech. It doesn’t guarantee anyone the right to spew hate speech online anonymously.

Like many of the folks who hang out on such sites, the Anonymous Poster (who I’ll refer to as AP, because his handle is too profane to print) has a long history of posting racist vitriol.

Here are just a few examples of what AP posted:

*A photo of the gate to a concentration camp with the caption, “Solved the refugee problem in Europe.”

*Photos of dozens of CNN staffers marked with Stars of David.

*A photo of a Koran being burned with the caption, “Don’t mind me just posting an image to offend Islam.”

*Repeated uses of the N-word in posts such as, “I just like dancing when n------ are getting beat down by the cops” and “FBI stats don’t lie n-----. You hood rats account for more that [sic] 50 percent of the murder, rape, robbery, and assault in the USA.”

(Fun fact: This last outburst is based on a bogus stat our president tweeted out during the campaign. Classy!)

When Trump first posted the CNN video, AP proudly crowed, “Holy s---!! I wake up and have my morning coffee and who retweets my s---post but the MAGA EMPORER [sic] himself!!! I am honored!!”

But within a day, AP had issued a long apology, claiming that he wasn’t a racist and never meant any of the horrible things he posted online.

So what might explain this sudden change of heart?

Here’s a hint: CNN figured out AP’s true identity and contacted him by email. In other words, he was afraid of being exposed.

Conservative media outlets immediately accused CNN of threatening to blackmail AP by exposing his identity. To which I would respond: nonsense.

The Constitution guarantees all Americans the right to free speech. It doesn’t guarantee anyone the right to spew hate speech online anonymously.

Much of the reason the internet has become a cesspool of cruel rhetoric is because folks like AP have weaponized anonymity. They use the internet to say whatever they want without having to face the consequences. They’ve turned the information superhighway into a playground full of coward-bullies wearing masks.

Like Trump, they love to dish out abuse. And like Trump, the moment anyone tries to hold them accountable, they pitch a fit.

They also threaten children. Yes, a group of white supremacists responded to the CNN report on AP by posting information about CNN employees, and threatening the kids of CNN employees unless they fired the lead reporter.

What these trolls really want is a safe space to spew hate.

So that’s what we’ve come to: Racists who threaten innocent kids online are demanding digital hoods to protect them from public disapproval. Perhaps the federal government should provide them guns and ammo, as well? Would that Make America Great Again?

We now have a president with a history of tweeting and retweeting material from white nationalist websites. He also has a long history of inciting violence against protesters, the media and other perceived enemies.

Under his watch, hate crimes have predictably surged. Journalists who work to expose the sources of hate speech routinely receive death threats from Trump’s racist army — all of them anonymous, naturally.

What these trolls really want is a safe space to spew hate. Forcing them to stand behind their words is the least a civilized society can do.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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