By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Paper blows pol’s cover

Now here’s an interesting ethical dilemma. James Donahue, a Haverhill city councilor, apparently posted comments on the Eagle-Tribune’s Web site under perhaps as many as 38 different screen names. How do we know this? Because the Eagle-Tribune exposed him last Saturday.

Donahue acknowledged using multiple screen names, but said that at least some of the 38 names traced to his computer were those of supporters hanging around his house. The city’s mayor, James Fiorentini, a frequent recipient of Donahue’s barbs, admitted that he, too, has been known to respond to his critics without revealing his identity.

Here’s the question. Even if you grant that what Donahue did was stupid, was it ethical for the Eagle-Tribune to expose him? There is nothing in the comment box telling you to use your real name. (I’ve posted a few pseudonymous comments at the Salem News’ site — part of the same chain as the Tribune.) It seems to me that the Tribune used proprietary information to embarrass Donahue, and without giving him fair warning that he was doing anything wrong.

It’s not clear exactly how the Tribune tracked Donahue down. The comment box does ask for a valid e-mail address. But the story says the posts were tracked to “Donahue’s personal computer,” which makes me think someone traced the messages to his IP address. If Google had done this, there would be an uproar.

The paper defends its outing in an editorial, saying in part:

It is not the general practice of this newspaper to seek the identity of those who comment on stories, although there is no explicit guarantee of anonymity. Virtually all the management of the comments section of the online edition is aimed at removing posts that are profane, racist or personal attacks.

However, one of the forum moderators noticed a pattern of posts under dozens of different names, and then discovered that they had all come from the same computer address. When it became clear that they were coming from the computer of an elected public official, it became our obligation to let the public know.

The average citizen does not take an oath to serve the public. An elected official does. An attempt to deceive the public is clearly not serving it, and a public official who does so is not only undeserving of the protection of confidentiality, but deserves public criticism.

Now Donahue’s in trouble with his fellow councilors. And I would imagine there’s going to be some awkwardness, at the very least, over his job as a teacher at a public school. (“What kind of an example … ?”)

I’m not sure I buy the Eagle-Tribune’s argument. It seems to me that the paper has chosen to humiliate Donahue for doing something the paper itself implicitly invited him to do, and that it used information available to no one else. If the Tribune had caught Donahue doing the same thing on, say, a non-Tribune blog, that would be fine. But this comes pretty close to entrapment, does it not?

I’m still pondering this, though, and would be curious to hear from Media Nation readers what you think. I promise not to trace your IP addresses. I guarantee you that I wouldn’t know how.

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  1. Michael Pahre

    Wrong for the paper to out him.The paper investigated the pattern of comments supporting the Mayor’s position and found that many came from the same IP address. That’s an indication to notify him and change their rules.Do they ban anonymous comments? No.Do they ban somebody from using multiple names? No, because they probably think it is fine me to use “anonymous” as well as my name.They should’ve changed the rules along with posting a threat to out anyone who breaks them.

  2. Sean Roche

    It’s called sock-puppeting and there’s only one purpose for it: to mislead people. A single pseudonym or posting anonymously allows you all the anonymity you need as a public official (or a regular ol’ citizen). The only reason to use multiple names is to create an impression that more people agree with your position than is true. It’s a near moral certainty that Donahue posted under one identity and then posted a he’s-absolutely-right comment using another identity.There is no innocent explanation. Not for 38 user names.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Sean: Agreed. But would you have blown his cover?

  4. Leslie

    What would Donahue have done pre-internet? Would he have written and mailed thirty-eight letters signing different names? Probably not. Or maybe? (Depending on what? Degree of obsession?) The very nature of news feedback (like everything else) has been fundamentally changed by the internet. No First Ammendment for commenters?

  5. ctscuse

    The Eagle-Tribune online comments are a huge joke. For every thought-provoking discussion, there are dozens of racist, mean and just plain asinine posts. If the editors should out anyone, it should be the people who use the comments to anonymously spew hatred, not Donahue.But the fact is, the editors shouldn’t be outing anyone. They have created a world where it’s OK for anyone to log on, make up a fake name and say whatever they want. And they should have to live with those results. If they want to hold commenters accountable, they should do it by requiring registration and/or real names — not by tracking IP addresses.

  6. Sean Roche

    Dan:In a heartbeat. There’s a malicious intent to distort the discussion that merits being revealed, even if the paper hadn’t gotten around to posting rules that would serve as notice to offenders. “We provide anonymity, but we don’t guarantee it.”Too bad for Donahue that he wasn’t savvy enough to understand the limitations of the anonymity he was trying to exploit. 38 names!

  7. mike_b1

    An unbelievably immature move on Donahue’s part. Obviously the paper wanted to embarrass him. But it’s their forum, and their right to do so. And I say that as a journalist.In general, I don’t believe anonymity aids discourse. (There are extreme exceptions, such as whistleblowing.) I believe people shouldn’t say or do things in public forums unless they are willing to absorb any consequences for being outed. That especially applies to elected officials.

  8. DJS

    Remember the Whole Foods(WF) CEO case from a year ago?WF CEO John Mackey used a pseudonym to post negative comments about rival health food store Wild Oats, a firm that Mackey’s WF was attempting to acquire. Mackie made his pseudonymous comments on a Yahoo! chat forum in a ploy to drive down Wild Oats’ stock price.Those comments were traced back to Mackie after the FTC filed an anti-trust lawsuit against WF, and presumably, Yahoo! was compelled to provide the FTC with records of Mackie’s posts on Yahoo!So was it ethical for Yahoo! to open its database to the FTC and give the Commission information to ‘out’ Mackie? I say yes, when the evidence showed clearly that he was engaging in fraudulent activities that were harmful to Wild Oats’ shareholders and consumers in general.And is it ethical for a newspaper to act both as a platform for public comment and then ‘out’ elected officials who abuse the paper’s online service? Again, I say yes. The paper’s first responsibility is to its community, and its role must extend beyond ‘service provider.’ It must also report.The Haverill pols are public figures whose communication with their constituents must be transparent and honest.Doug Shugarts

  9. Joe Light

    If an enterprising reporter had found some way to connect the posts to the politician on his own, the story’s fair game. IP addresses are made public incidentally in a number of ways — I bet that played a part in connecting the politician’s IP address to the shared IP addresses of the commenters.If the reporter got the information from the editorial side, it might have also been fair game. Remember a couple years ago when a California newspaper (the Chronicle?) started to put voice messages that readers left on reporters’ answering machines online? That would suggest that everything readers send to the editorial side of the paper is “on the record”. So, when someone calls the paper and leaves a message, that’s on the record. Letters sent to the paper (including the return address and postmark on the envelope) are on the record. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say an internet post, including its “digital postmark” or IP address is also on the record.To argue the other side, the burden seems to be on the newspaper to make clear that something is on the record, and not on the commenter to make it off the record. In the case of publishing the phone messages, the callers could have a reasonable expectation that by leaving a message on a newspaper’s line, their comments were fair game. But do most online commenters even know what an IP address is? Or that it’s automatically transmitted and recorded when they make a comment? Wouldn’t recording the IP and then using it for publication be the equivalent of having a hidden tape recorder or camera? What’s more, allowing commenters to write pseudonyms seems to imply to the commenters that their comments ARE off the record. It’s as if a newspaper had an anonymous tip line, but then published the information along with the caller’s phone number ripped off caller id.The last question could be solved if somewhere in the comments section they had a link to comment policies that said IP addresses were being tracked.But even then, is it clear that editorial is the one doing the IP tracking or could it be assumed that the business side or the web side (if separate from editorial) is using the IPs? If that assumption could be made, then of course the reporter shouldn’t have gotten the info. That would be like telling advertisers that their private financial info or negotiated ad rates were fair game for the editorial side.Anyway, I guess it just all depends on how the information was gathered. Seems across the line to me.- Joe Light

  10. myDedham

    On my blog you can’t post a comment without registering an account with a valid e-mail address first. The only time I’ve ever run into a situation like this was during the last election when the daughter of a candidate registered several dummy accounts (and in several cases using identifiable e-mail addresses) from the same IP address. She then voted using all of them in the online poll about who you were planning to vote for. I banned all but one of the dummy accounts, sent her an e-mail telling her I was on to her, and reset the poll.I told a few people what had happened, but I didn’t publish it on the blog. I don’t normally check the IP addresses of new accounts. We usually only get a few a week, and so when I got 5 in one day I investigated it. If I were the Eagle-Tribune, that’s how I would have handled it with the Councilor. If he did it again, well, then I’d hang a big scarlet letter around his neck.

  11. Tish Grier

    So, a politician engages in a bit of sock-puppetry and gets outed. I don’t see any problem in that, mostly because he is indeed a public figure and was posting under multiple identities for the purpose of swaying public opinion. It was deception from a public official, and I’m glad they caught it…In all my reviewing of newspaper commenting policies, I’ve never seen a policy that invites people to post under multiple identities to further a particular agenda. And I don’t think the average forum commenter has the time nor the inclination to be bothered concocting multiple identities to sway public opinion. Which is possibly part of how and why these particular comments came to the attention of the forum moderators. It was obvious that something wasn’t right.Donahue has no one to blame but himself. He wasn’t outed inasmuch as he was discovered acting like a fool and doing something that is ethically hinky. A public official is not like an average citizen, in a lot of ways, and should not be engaging in this kind of subterfuge.

  12. Gladys Kravitz

    On one hand, I think the paper should have posted it’s policy before outing Donahue. If he kept doing it after the rules were posted – then the outing would have been less controversial. On the other, at this very moment, on a local Topix forum, there are about 7 posts and at least three polls, with hundreds of different screennames, saying extremely disparaging and inflamatory things about me and some of my other non-political friends in the anti-casino movement. And I would appreciate it greatly if that forum could be even a fraction as proactive as the Eagle Tribune has been.At the very least, a lot of abuse and other problems arising from comment sections and on-line fourms could be put to rest by allowing only one screenname per IP. And not letting ‘anonymous’ be one of them.By doing this, others on my local forum could see for themselves what I already know – that these hundreds and hundreds of screen names are really the same three people with just way too much time on their hands.On-line forums and comment sections do seem to invite this kind of behavior by making it so easy. They, and their posters would do better to come clean.If you ever really need to blow a whistle – go to the trouble of using a proxy…

  13. Howard

    George Orwell concludes his list of writing rules with this admonition: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”I’d say the same to the paper: break any of the rules before being willfully obtuse and denying readers useful information.

  14. Dan Kennedy

    Howard: Your opinion is especially useful to this discussion given what you do for a living. So let me follow up — all things considered, do you think the Eagle-Tribune should have had some sort of disclaimer saying, “We may not respect your anonymity if you do such-and-such”?

  15. Hippie Killer

    I think when people talk about “tracking IP addresses,” they’re making it sound much more sinister than it really is.It’s highly likely that the paper recognized Donahue, at least at first, because he was leaving his real email address along with his comments. I obviously don’t know how the ET’s comment system works, but WordPress (for example) allows you to easily search through comments by IP addresses. And I do mean easy: it’s easier to filter comments by IP address than it is username or email. So while some of you might be imagining that the paper used CSI forensics tactics “out” Donahue, all it likely involved was an administrator signing in to the account, then clicking literally 2 or 3 times. So I think it’s fair to ask how reasonable Donahue’s expectation of anonymity really was — especially if he was leaving comments under multiple usernames, but leaving the same email address. It’s just dumb. Again, we don’t know if this is the case, but it’s quite likely. I say all of this because I had something similar happen on my own blog. It began when I wrote a post critical of a story in my local newspaper. It proved to be a popular topic, and it wasn’t long before the reporter who wrote the story chimed in to defend himself (although not very well). The only way I knew it was actually him and not an impostor posting under his name is because I could see his IP address and email. Fine, right?Well, just minutes after he left comments under his own name, he started to leave comments under another name — but he continued to use his real email address (something that most people have figured out that you don’t have to do), so I knew all along who he was. The comments he left were pretty juvenile in nature, and ranged from a defense of his own articles, to vulgar, sexual remarks about his own colleagues. It got to be pretty annoying. It was especially annoying in the context of how often bloggers are subject to lectures about how we’re just half-informed (his own words) amateurs that need to leave things to the professionals. Especially when other reporters openly joked about this guy using my blog as his assignment desk. Months go by, and he continues to comment under different names, but always leaves the same email. And one day, I just get tired of it. I outed him in a post. And of course, things quickly got out of hand, but in ways I did not expect.The readers of my blog who disapproved (a small minority) took issue with me posting the reporter’s email address — something I offered as “proof” of the commenter’s identity. I didn’t think they would fixate on that. I took down his email after about 2 hours, as it was distracting from whatever point I was trying to make in the first place. And then it became clear that by outing him, I had put his job in jeopardy — something that I never intended. Really, at the most, I just wanted to embarrass him. But it quickly got to where I felt like I was being a bully. I eventually took down the entire post, and even went back and deleted some of the more disparaging comments that he left so they wouldn’t be “out there” for people to hold over his head.I’m still not sure how I should have handled it. Again, it’s important point out that the comments he left were absolutely indefensible. And I think it was supremely stupid that he continued to say what he did all while leaving his real email address. Perhaps I should have emailed him privately to say “I know who you are buddy, and you better knock it off.” But for whatever reason, writing a post about it still seems like the more honest option. But it’s not something I would likely do again.

  16. Dan Kennedy

    Hippie Killer (nice handle, by the way): Did you let the reporter know that if he kept it up you were going to out him? If not, why not?I think that if Donahue were creating different names but continuing to use his real e-mail address, then you could at least say that he knew or should have known that the Eagle-Tribune knew what he was doing. Even so, the Tribune was making use of information available only to them, so I’ve got some problems with that.But if the Tribune was doing the IP thing, as I suspect, then it is extremely unlikely he knew he was revealing his identity.I have yet to hear an explanation as to why the Tribune simply couldn’t have contacted Donahue, told him, “Hey Jerky Boy, cut it out or we’re going to out you,” and then rewrote its TOS so everyone knew the rules.

  17. Sean Roche

    Dan,I think that you’re letting the novelty of the form (and the method for detecting abuse) distort the question.Donahue was posting in an intentionally misleading way. Yes, a published policy would be a nice-to-have to discourage sock-puppeting, but it shouldn’t be a pre-requisite to disclosing his bad behavior.No reasonable person should expect that a news organization is going to respect your anonymity when you mislead. Doesn’t matter how your expectation was formed.

  18. Hippie Killer

    No, I didn’t let the reporter know, but I admit now that I probably should have. Live and learn. Honestly though, I think I was most offended by his stupidity — did he really think I couldn’t see who he was?

  19. The newspaper/blog has a right to “out” a public official using a Newspaper/blog to further his/her political ends.

    1. It is news that the official has those views.

    2. It is news that the official is presenting those views under many “assumed” names.

    There is an issue of whether the newspaper is doing anything illegal in it’s investigation of the source. I think the paper has a right to make an effort to ensure readers that the content of posts represents “people” as opposed to one person.

    I would be interested if the friends who he says were at his house are actual people. The cover-up may be worse than the crime…

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