Could Facebook — or at least the Facebook ethos — help turn the tide of negativity when it comes to online newspaper comments?
Richard Pérez-Peña reports in the New York Times that an increasing number of news organizations are requiring commenters to use their real names, or at least providing incentives to do so. They credit Facebook and Twitter, where most people use their real names, in fostering a change in attitude. Pérez-Peña writes:
Several industry executives cited a more fundamental force working in favor of identifying commenters. Through blogging and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, millions of people have grown accustomed to posting their opinions — to say nothing of personal details — with their names attached, for all to see. Adapting the Facebook model, some news sites allow readers to post a picture along with a comment, another step away from anonymity.
Several months ago I led a workshop on social media for the New England Newspaper & Press Association. The most interesting idea to come out of the workshop, I thought, was put forth by a weekly-newspaper editor who said he had been posting links to many of his stories to a Facebook group and encouraging readers to comment there.
The Facebook group, he said, had turned into more of a real online community than the comments at his newspaper’s Web site, where anonymity had transformed even mundane matters into fodder for nasty rhetoric and personal attacks. And it’s not just real names; it’s the entire online persona people create on Facebook, with pictures and personal information, all of which encourage users to act more like human beings when they start typing. I was so excited that I instituted a real-names policy at Media Nation as soon as the conference was over, though I’ve held off from taking the Facebook route.
But what about the notion of sending readers away from your Web site, where you presumably have some advertising you want them to look at? I would argue that if you become a trusted source for your readers, they will reward you by coming back and providing you with more traffic than you would otherwise get.
Besides, as Pérez-Peña notes, advertisers generally don’t want to be associated with the kind of vitriol that characterizes anonymous comment sections.
Facebook is a great technological solution for small organizations that don’t have the wherewithal to offer a registration system of their own. But Howard Owens has managed to put together a registration system accompanied by a real-names policy at the Batavian, the community-news site in western New York that he owns. Owens writes:
Real names may not prevent people from spewing misinformation and defamatory bile, but at least if readers trust that the person making such assertions is using a real name, they can judge it accordingly, or fact check the source themselves.
Owens goes on to note that if the Cleveland Plain Dealer had had a real-names policy, it could have avoided the ethical dilemma in which it finds itself over a judge whose e-mail address was being used to post anonymous comments about cases in which she was involved. (The judge claims, not too convincingly, that the anonymous poster was her daughter.)
Of course, that’s something of an inside-out argument — that is, the Plain Dealer wouldn’t have done anything unethical if it didn’t have private information it could handle unethically. The best reason for real names is to foster a civil discussion. Along with strict moderation, real names can help fulfill the promise of a comments section that helps build community and readership.