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

How Facebook is driving the push for real names

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.)

The Plain Dealer outed the judge, Shirley Strickland Safford. And last week Saffold sued the paper for $50 million, claiming the paper had violated its own privacy policy.

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.

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  1. I’d actually argue that GMail started cementing the trend of real names online around the same time that Facebook first started getting going on campuses. Gone were the number and nickname patterns of AOL/Hotmail, and since the service automatically recommended e-mail addresses based on your name at the time of registration, that really pushed it. By the time Twitter came to, matching your user name to e-mail was commonplace, and since the general public got access to Facebook after this time, there wasn’t as much conflict.

  2. L.K. Collins

    Works well for people who do not fiercely defend their anonymity.

    Anyone with a little imagination and some tech savvy can remain anonymous.

    Bet you have more than a handful here on your site, Dan, that are still using false names. They just appear to be real.

    And what are you going to be able to do about it?

  3. BP Myers

    I just don’t understand, short of prurient interest, why the hell real names matter. I am more than capable of dismissing ridiculous or hateful or idiotic comments on my own, thank you very much, and gleaning gems.

    Matter of fact, I don’t want to know who is making the comments, because if I do, I may bring my own biases or opinions to bear against them. With anonymity, the comment stands or falls of its own logic or brilliance or idiocy.

    In terms of “elevating the discussion” or discouraging hateful comments, I’d prefer not to drive those people underground, thank you. I believe it’s important for everyone to know that that kind of thinking still exists out there.

    And much of it will indeed disappear if real names or identity checks become the norm. But it won’t REALLY disappear now, will it?

    To this day, the most hilarious and brilliant comment I ever read came from the cesspool that is the YouTube comments section.

    I just don’t get it.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: I suggest you read the Howard Owens essay (linked above) in full. Media Nation is a news organization, albeit a rather humble one. If you have a problem with anonymous letters to the editor and the promiscuous, often unnecessary use of anonymous quotes, then you should have a problem with anonymous comments.

      @L.K., continuing with his practice of making assertions unsupported by evidence, writes, “Bet you have more than a handful here on your site, Dan, that are still using false names.” No, I don’t. I might have a handful. A tiny handful. More than a handful? No. And I know it for a fact. There are some rather quick ways of doing due diligence. I’ve caught a few people trying to game the system.

      And if it ever gets out of hand, I can always move to a registration system or even Facebook.

  4. BP Myers

    @Dan: Having read and debated Mr. Owens ostrich-like, closed-minded thinking on the subject of Global Warming, I’m not sure I’ll take very seriously whatever he has to say on the subject of anonymity. But I’ll read it anyway.

    And I certainly do not have a problem with anonymous letters to the editor. I pay attention to the content of the letters, not who wrote them.

    In terms of anonymous quotations within news article, that’s an inside baseball, journalistic debate that I’m probably not equipped to have an informed opinion on. But my knee-jerk reaction is if the reporter is convinced that the source is telling the truth, I’m not sure what the problem is.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: I have no problem with using anonymous sources in stories as long as I think there’s a clear benefit to the reader. In fact, I’ve written that some media critics, in my view, worry more about anonymity than they should.

      But here’s one big difference: when a news organization grants anonymity to a source, the reporter knows the person’s identity and — ideally — the editor does, too. Judgments have been made that simply aren’t possible when people post comments anonymously.

      I’m surprised you would rule out Owens’ thinking in advance because of his views on global warming. All of us, me included, believe many things others might consider strange, but that doesn’t diminish the value of what we have learned from experience.

  5. Mike Stucka

    This is just another example of the silly, feel-good liberal Groupthink that Dan likes to spread.

    How’d I do? =) More seriously, I’d note that Dan’s response to L.K. acknowledges that real names are not a fool-proof maintenance-free system, though I don’t believe Dan ever claimed so. I’d be curious to know the maintenance/headache ratio therein.

    And problems may not be limited to the name itself, as opposed to even something purportedly innocuous, such as a personal icon/avatar. One newspaper Web site I’m familiar with has a fella posting with a picture of a certain historical figure — and I don’t know whether said historical figure is being held up ironically, as a military genius, as a representative of a geography, or as a founder of the Klan. Would said avatar had been used in connection with a real name? I don’t know.

  6. BP Myers

    @Dan: Didn’t say I’d rule out what Owens had to say on the subject. And it’s not because we disagree. As I said, it is his unwillingness to keep an open mind, at least in my example, and the way he has come to certain conclusions that has given me an insight into the way his mind works — or doesn’t work.

    Of course, ironically enough, I’d never even have known it was him I was having the debate with . . . except that he used his real name. Had I not known it was him I was debating, I would have no preconceived notions or biases against him.

    And like you, I too believe in strange things. However I suspect we both look forward to having those beliefs challenged and tested constantly, and are willing to change our minds given additional evidence or being shown where our logic breaks down. That was not my experience with Howard (whom I like very much, by the way, except for this frustrating example).

    Couple of things on his article before I had to stop reading:

    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.

    There’s a guy on one site I frequent named Sloth. Though we disagree, he is reasonable and provides facts to support his conclusions. But there’s this other guy named Kirk, who is simply a rightist bot. I trust Sloth. I do not trust Kirk. And I don’t need to know their real names to come to that conclusion.

    The public, for example, has a right to know if the person pushing cuts to local bus routes is the politician who wrote the legislation or just some well informed citizen.

    Can’t that politician be both an informed citizen and someone pushing cuts to local bus routes? If his argument makes sense, what does it matter?

    First, it doesn’t solve the exceptionally important ethical issue of the readers right to know who is saying what; second, it’s too easy for sock puppets to promote an agenda using multiple identities.

    I’m not sure on what parchment my right to know who is saying what is written. Again, if an argument makes sense — whether propogated by a sockpuppet or not — I simply don’t care.

  7. L.K.Collins

    I do not doubt that you do some sort of due diligence, but I suspect that unless you have the capability to see through a proxy to the initiating IP (doable but generally beyond the resources available unless you run your own server), your due diligence is only of limited efficacy. You can only see the IP, and that leads you only to a localized geographic area, and those localized areas can be off by miles. (My IP on occasion traces to Newton, quite some distance from the actual final node.)

    I notice that you admit to a handful slipping through. From my experiences in such vetting activities, that handful is rather larger than first imagined.

    With the public’s widespread access to free e-mail accounts, which are themselves highly subject to manipulation, you have no way of knowing that is really Clark Kent of the Daily Planet, and unless J-Schmorg makes the mistake of checking-in using his Daily Planet IP or some other IP that traces to his real name, you wouldn’t have a clue as to the reality.

    What the full-name concept relies on is that most will actually abide by the guidelines and will follow societal norms that they are familiar with.

    This is a calculated leap-of-faith; one that does show some results.

    But it it is still a calculated leap-of-faith.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @L.K.: Reporting skills come into play that have nothing to do with IP addresses. I’m not going to tip my hand, but I just vetted a newcomer today and found out that she was indeed using her real name. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that 90 percent of Media Nation commenters are regulars.

  8. L.K.Collins

    Wow, Dan, your vetting worked today.

    Likely because there were enough clues and trails left on the internet to discern the this individual’s bona fides.

    J-Schmor is much more talented at covering his tracks. He is, after all a journalist interested in maintaining his anonymity and that of his alter ego, and his e-mail address comes up blank in all searches.

    Your vetting system is “good enough” for your purposes. If it is good enough for your purposes, then you’ve got a winner — sort-of.

    But I notice that you have elected not to address the points that have been raised by me and others.

  9. Bill Hanna

    Dan, it’s interesting to note that in looking at your earlier post about the Herald’s editorial promotions, the three anonymous comments that followed were the usual negative, thoughtless shots of the type that too often follow web stories. One doesn’t have to like the Herald to respect Joe Sciacca’s work, and nameless attacks like this make the best argument for a real-names-only rule.

  10. BP Myers

    @Bill said: “the three anonymous comments that followed were the usual negative, thoughtless shots of the type that too often follow web stories.”

    Wow. Amazing how two people can see things so differently.

    Way I read them, one was a dig at the Globe but complimentary toward the Herald, one was a silly and harmless joke, and the third was actually pretty good advice.

  11. I’m happy to think that @BP thinks I’m an idiot because he disagrees with my position on global warming, which I doubt he could even accurately articulate what it is. I’ve noticed most of my life that the most closed minded people are those who accuse others of being closed minded.

    I’ve also noticed a pattern in the debate over real names — people who have never been in a position to police such a policy say it will never work, while those who have actually done, somehow — gee, how could that be? — know it works. Of course, the people who have already made up their mind that it will never work never accept the evidence that it can and will work.

    Policing a real name policy isn’t rocket science. It’s something any capable, experienced journalist can do rather easily. It’s really the kindergarten of journalism research.

    I often find myself wondering when journalists argue against a real name policy — did they flunk their ethics class in J-school, or just not show up for class?

  12. BP Myers

    @Howard Owens says: I’m happy to think that @BP thinks I’m an idiot because he disagrees with my position on global warming, which I doubt he could even accurately articulate what it is.

    Heh. Never said you were an idiot, Howard. In fact, I remember saying I liked you very much, and meaning it.

    In fact, I like you so much that I’ve determined to simply chalk up your wrong-headedness to you simply getting a headstart on the “curmudgeonly” phase of your life.

    And I do believe I could articulate your thoughts on global warming, with perhaps a few minor quibbles on your part, to even your satisfaction. With some uniquely “Howardidian” twists, your thoughts on the matter are not uncommon, and I’ve discussed and debated the subject with many who believe the way you do.

    But that’s a subject for another day.

    Most sincerely, all the best.

  13. @BP, apparently, I’ve always been a curmudgeon. A person I recently met happens to be a business associate of my publisher from my first daily newspaper job. When this recent acquaintance mentioned me to this ex-publisher, the ex-publisher said, “Yeah, I remember him. He was a curmudgeon.”

    Tigers don’t change their stripes, I guess.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Howard: Heh, heh. As you know, in media circles curmudgeon has taken on a secondary, specific meaning, and in that sense you’re anything but.

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