Names, faces and anonymous comments

Click on image to visit "Greater Boston"

Have we reached the final days for anonymous news-site commenters? Probably not — that’s more hope than reality. But there’s no doubt the tide is shifting away from the anonymous and pseudonymous insults, libel and hate speech that comprise the majority of comments at news sites.

This past Sunday, the Boston Globe Magazine posted a feature by Neil Swidey on the anonymous commenters who waste electrons on the Globe’s website, Boston.com. Except that Swidey didn’t quite succeed. The truly anonymous whackos with whom he hoped to connect refused to crawl out from under their rocks. Instead, he ended up with a highly entertaining profile of two men who didn’t mind revealing their identities and to a female Red Sox fan who all but identified herself. Swidey writes of his quest to interview the worst of the worst:

[H]ere are the people I didn’t hear back from: the screamers, troublemakers, and trolls (Internet slang for people behind inflammatory posts). Not a single one. The loudest, most aggressive voices grew mum when asked to explain themselves, to engage in an actual discussion. The trolls appear to prize their anonymity more than anyone else.

The story is accompanied by a video starring the two men. Also, last night Swidey talked about the story with “Greater Boston” host Emily Rooney on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). I couldn’t find a direct link, but you’ll find it easily enough if you click here or on the image above.

For much of the year, the news business has been growing increasingly uneasy over anonymous comments. Swidey himself discusses some of the problems — legal challenges that could force news organizations to help potential libel plaintiffs expose commenters they want to sue, and the bizarre situation at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which outed a judge who had apparently been commenting on her own cases under a pseudonym. (For what it’s worth, Media Nation started requiring real names earlier this year.)

As Rooney points out in her interview with Swidey, just yesterday the Buffalo News announced that it would soon banish anonymous comments. And American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder has called for an end to anonymity, pointing out that the same newspapers that allow them customarily ban anonymous letters to the editor and do not allow unnamed sources to level personal attacks. Rieder writes:

Comments sections are often packed with profanity and vicious personal attacks. The opportunity to launch brutal assaults from the safety of a computer without attaching a name does wonders for the bravery levels of the angry.

One alternative, which I’ve mentioned before, is to use Facebook as a commenting system. Nearly everyone on Facebook uses his or her real name, usually accompanied by a photo. The Globe itself is among newspapers that posts links to some of its stories on Facebook, where you will find a far more civil conversation than what’s on Boston.com.

Anonymous commenting is an idea whose time has come and gone. Whatever hopes early Internet visionaries had that anonymity could be compatible with community have long since proven to be wrong. I hope Swidey’s story serves as an inadvertent spur to the Globe — and to other news organizations — to end this failed experiment.

10 thoughts on “Names, faces and anonymous comments

  1. We’re not talking about a “failed experiment,” but rather, a well-entrenched principle of free expression that promotes the flow of information to the public. The U.S. Supreme Court, in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334, 341-42 (1995), said authors were free to decide whether to reveal their true identities. Last month, the N.H. Supreme Court in The Mortgage Specialists, Inc. v. Implode-Explode Heavy Industries, Inc. (Case No. 2009-262) preserved the confidentiality of anonymous posters [see my blog, The Unruly of Law]. The Buffalo News can police its online commenters just as it monitors snail-mail letters to the editor, irrespective of whether the actual name and address of the commenter is listed. Given the level of political discourse in the nation today on display on cable & network tv gabfests where the speakers’ names and faces are out in the open, merely requiring bloggers to list their names and addresses isn’t going to elevate the level of discussion.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Sheldon: The First Amendment guarantees all of us the right to engage in anonymous speech, but I don’t see what that has to do with a news organization’s reputation and standards. If you want to be anonymous, start a blog.

  2. Mike Benedict

    Dan, I read that piece this weekend fully expecting to see some quotes from you. Were you as surprised as I was that you weren’t in there?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: Swidey quoted Steve Yelvington and Howard Owens, who have as much expertise on news-site comments as anyone in the business.

  3. Not all anonymous posters consider a pseudonym a license to spew invective. Sometimes, the posters have important insights to share, but financial, professional or safety concerns require them to protect their identity from disclosure. Democracy is messy. One of the standards newspapers should be seeking to preserve is the free flow of information. Incendiary, hateful anonymous electronic post-article comments can be deleted much as their paper letter to the editor counterparts can be tossed in the rubbish bin. A newspaper’s or blog’s reputation is sullied only if it promotes hate speech and doesn’t delete it. Vulgar comments are a nuisance to online newspapers and blogs alike–I regularly have to dump a commenter that submits messages in Chinese that link to a porn site, but that’s just part of the cost of sharing information (maybe it will help me learn Chinese).

  4. Neil Sagan

    Dan draws sweeping conclusions based on personal experience and bias and perhaps a need for vindication, citing not only policy that has been instituted to exclude anonymous comment but policy changes he hopes will exclude anonymous comments in the future as evidence supporting his position.

    Anonymous commenting is an idea whose time has come and gone. Whatever hopes early Internet visionaries had that anonymity could be compatible with community have long since proven to be wrong. I hope Swidey’s story serves as an inadvertent spur to the Globe — and to other news organizations — to end this failed experiment.

    When I choose to read comments on Boson.com I don;t spend too much time on the ones void of substantive ideas about the topics raised in the article. It’s really not a burden. And sometimes the off topic, snarky (anonymous)comments are quire enjoyable.

  5. Neil Sagan

    I would gladly trade the opportunity to post anonymously if reporters would stop granting their sources anonymous attribution. Which of the two are the greater curse to good journalism … the former being Kennedy’s pet peeve. Which of these two issues deserve time and energy and which of the two would benefit us all more?

  6. Brad Deltan

    I’d be very, very hesitant to suggest using Facebook to solve this problem. First, it’s not hard to create a totally false identity on Facebook…and if you drive all the anonymous trolls to FB you’ll just encourage that phenomena.

    Second, Facebook has a proven track record of being terrible at safeguarding users’ privacy and rights. They are quite clearly out to make a buck and every other consideration is a distant second. A newspaper’s website probably has a lot more legal protection over a commenter’s (or whistleblower’s) privacy than Facebook’s servers do.

  7. Michael Pahre

    I cheered when you decided to require real identities for commenters, and I enjoy reading the comments here far more than I used to.

    There may be fewer comments, but they are, on average, far more thoughtful.

Comments are closed.