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

GateHouse papers ban anonymous comments

Anonymous commenter reacts to new GateHouse policy

Anonymous commenter reacts to new GateHouse policy

Friday update: MetroWest Daily News columnist Julia Spitz offers her take.

Yet another major news organization is fighting back against the scourge of anonymous, hateful comments. GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns about 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, is now requiring readers to use their real names and log in via Facebook or LinkedIn. The new rules kick in today.

Here’s how the reason for the new policy was explained in the GateHouse-owned Patriot Ledger of Quincy earlier this week:

For some time, we’ve received complaints that the anonymous commenting system we’ve hosted on our online stories does little to enhance the conversation within our community. The criticism has been that some of the comments are hateful and sometimes, downright objectionable. We heard you and we agree.

Most of GateHouse’s Massachusetts papers are community weeklies, but there are also a few medium-size dailies — most prominently The Patriot Ledger, The Enterprise of Brockton, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and The Milford Daily News.

The new policy pertains to all of GateHouse’s properties, which include more than 300 daily and weekly papers, according to a tweet from Nicole Simmons, regional digital editor for GateHouse Media New England.

In discussing the new policy on Facebook this week, I’ve seen praise for the decision to banish anonymity and criticism for relying on third-party services such as Facebook and LinkedIn. My sense is that the new policy is a step in the right direction, and how well it works will depend on the willingness of local editors to engage with their audience.

In other words: better some places than others.

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  1. Ken Rowland

    I join the discussion here via Facebook, with trepidation. That said. Not so much. I’ve always felt that which is said on line, by me or others, MUST be attributable, somewhere. Third party ‘attribution of personal statements’ vis a vis Linked In (Link confirmation), or Facebook (member linkage) or (name your fine wine of a generic blogosphere) needs a link… an attribution link, holding an author accountable, if not for his or her ‘language’, incendiary or otherwise, but for legitimizing the “who, what, where, way, when & how” of the personal position taken. Personal opinions aside, but inclusive in the argument; GateHouse fails here… not for their exclusionary anonymity and ‘commenting-program’ short-sights, but for their IT departments inability to create a parallel course of action, i.e. receipt of ‘anonymous-member comment’ with a real-world/brick & mortar library, a co-filing Dewey-ism system…William Penn Adair Rogers had a pseudonym; match it up with a ‘call-back’ attribution number, to make sure everyone within the writing are on their meds and aren’t carrying… Even Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote ‘anonymously’… but I would have loved to have chatted about the ‘color-of-white’ paint… and discussed, maybe it should have been pink, or black, or a contemporary moave(?).

  2. Some people have established and full blown Facebook alter egos, and sometimes use them to leave comments when this format is used. If they us FB, they may not be getting the ‘real’ names they hope for.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Cynthia: They say they’re going to go beyond that and try to root out fake Facebook names as well. Nothing’s perfect. A few will slip through. But most Facebook users register under their real names.

      I also wonder if it might have something to do with what happens when someone wants to sue an anonymous commenter and goes to the newspaper looking for identifying information. The paper can now say, hey, this person violated Facebook’s terms of service by registering under a fake name. Go ask them.

  3. While I heartily endorse better comment management, I hate the Facebook plug-in for comments and won’t leave a comment if that’s my only option. Commenters should be able to use screen names, and Facebook doesn’t allow that. There are many instances where comments would be valuable additions to a story but a commenter doesn’t want to share his/her real name (sensitive stories like rape, whistleblower stories on local employers, etc.), and requiring real names to be displayed means you lose the value of those comments. It’s entirely possible to require registration and login without also requiring real names to be displayed, and GateHouse is just being lazy by not using one of those options.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Anonymous comments about rape … what could possibly go wrong?

      • TJDestry

        Surprised to learn that not all rape victims want to discuss their cases publicly, Dan? Well, I guess you learn something new every day.

        • Dan Kennedy

          @TJ: Do you think news organizations are obligated to provide an anonymous forum for rape victims and alleged rape victims? What do you suppose might go wrong?

  4. “use their real names and log in via Facebook”
    I have multiple Facebook accounts. One is just for this type of stupidity.

  5. The creators of the First Amendment will be rolling in their graves. Again.

    It takes a rather perverse (and incorrect) reading of American history and current public opinion to argue that banning anonymous comments is a step in the “right” direction for legacy news media. “Some” anonymous comments are grotesque abuses of liberty, sure, but hardly “most,” and quite a few people post ignorant, rude, and offensive comments under their own names in all manner of forums.

    True freedom of speech includes suffering speech that you do not like, or even speech that offends you. And the only solution to “bad” speech, in a free society, is more speech, not less.

    Such bans do not improve anything other than to further disempower the vulnerable and the dispossessed. Banning anonymous comments only has a chilling effect on the vast majority of users who want to exercise their constitutional guarantee to express their legitimate opinions anonymously (see McIntyre v. Ohio Board of Elections for the most recent SCOTUS ruling on the matter). It will only give “voice” to those who are secure enough in their lives to either not fear nor be worried about retaliation from their employers.

    These are sad, sad days for the First Amendment when the former champions of free speech — the elites of the working press — celebrate the ban on speech they just so happen to dislike. No wonder the public has such a low regard for the news media; the news media has such a low regard for the public.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: Do you think print newspapers should publish anonymous letters to the editor?

  6. Jon Keller

    Seriously professor? There is no absolute right to free speech (“fire!”, hate speech, etc). A baker who has her display window smeared with fecal matter by a vandal has every right to remove it. How is that different from a newspaper trying to hose the offensive, anonymous crap off its website? As for the “disempowerment” of “the vulnerable and disposessed,” that is much too serious a topic to be so casually misreferenced in this context.

  7. I work for Gatehouse and I think Jon Keller has said it best. Sure, speech is free, but readers have no reasonable expectation of having their words published in a newspaper or a website simply because they think they have something useful to say. The folks who run newspapers and websites set the rules. And rightly so. If anonymous posters’ ideas are that valuable, they should start their own newspaper.

  8. Professional journalism’s widespread disdain against “anonymity” is a product of mid-20th century Cold War paranoia, with shades of McCarthyism. Until then, most newspapers would publish “name withheld” letters signed only with pseudonyms or the writers’ initials.

    I fully agree that a newspaper has every right to remove offensive comments from its forums, or even comments it does not like (many newspapers still reject LTEs and online comments that are critical of the paper, for example). The issue here is not removing offensive comments — that is, editing — but rather throwing up serious barriers to free speech and expression via their allegedly “public” forums.

    John Keller, your response is mildly offensive (insulting, actually), but yet you signed your name. I can provide you with many examples of “real name” comments that exhibit far less propriety and were published nonetheless.

    I never argued for absolute “free speech,” but you “misreference” and distort my opinion to raise a false dichotomy. You argue for removing offensive comments, and that is a fair point. But removing bad anonymous comments is not the same as banning all anonymous comments. Surely you are intellectually honest enough to concede that point?

    Your “fecal matter” on the window analogy, accurately applied to what GateHouse is doing, would be that nobody who defecates would be allowed to walk the streets because they could potentially act as you describe. Just because an anonymous writer “could” write something nasty is not a logical reason to ban all anonymous writers from an allegedly “public” forum.

    Publishing anonymous comments, online or via LTEs, is a long-standing tradition of the news media, and was very much the norm in the late 1700s and early 1800s as the First Amendment was developed and implemented. Many signers of both the Declaration of Independence and/or the U.S. Constitution were known to write prolifically under a variety of pseudonyms, even though they had the right, under the First Amendment, to sign their names if they chose.

    Modern journalism’s beliefs about the role and history of anonymous comments in our society is based on ignorance, emotion, and gross exaggeration, which explains why most anti-anonymity arguments made by media elites are patently, woefully incorrect.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: Does the Internet lack for outlets where people can engage in anonymous speech? Is there a shortage? A crisis? Is your local news site the only place where you can post anonymously?

      Your reference to anonymous letters to the editor betrays a fundamental misunderstanding on your part. I’ve worked at newspapers where a couple of times, on very rare occasions, we decided to run an anonymous letter. But we knew who had written the letter and why the person needed to remain anonymous. The situation was akin to using an anonymous source, where our readers trusted (we hoped) that we had done our due diligence and had good reasons for withholding the name. It had nothing to do with the Cold War. It had to do with standards and the principle that we were legally liable for everything we published, including letters.

      By contrast, most online commenting systems that allow anonymity are completely anonymous, so that even the news organization that’s hosting those comments doesn’t know the identity of the commenters. (That’s changing. Even the New Haven Independent, a rare example of a site that manages anonymous comments well, now requires real-name registration.) That is a complete departure from past practice, even in comparison to the Colonial era.

      Thanks to a 1996 federal law, website operators are not legally responsible for content posted by third parties, which means that your local has nothing to worry about if some anonymous troll libels someone. Except this: The troll is liable. So now you’ve got the untenable situation of a plaintiff’s lawyer demanding that the news organization turn over any identifying information it might have, such as an IP address.

      A situation very much like that recently played out in GateHouse-land, which may be one of the reasons for the new policy.

  9. Dan — You are making a common argument based in highly dubious logic. What difference does it make whether a well-written, valid opinion is purely anonymous, “name withheld,” or signed?

    How many really good letters to the editor have been automatically rejected because the writer did not sign her or his name? How many bland, boring, uninteresting letters have been published instead simply because they bore the signature of the bland, boring, uninteresting people who wrote them?

    With all due respect, i have spend more than 15 years studying this specific issue; I have conducted quite a few published studies on the issue; and I have probably spent more time reading and digesting the literature about this issue than most other scholars, including you. I have no “fundamental misunderstanding” on this issue — to the reading public, there is no meaningful difference between a “name withheld” and an “anonymous” letter, and the public today is very much in favor of being allowed to use both when participating in news media forums.

    No, there is no shortage of other forums where they can go. I like newspapers and think they are more valuable than those “other forums.” I think it is foolish and illogical for a newspaper to tell existing or potential customers to “go elsewhere.”

    The key to the problem of trolls is to delete their comments and, for repeat offenders, block their access. But don’t turn away the majority of anonymous commenters who are not trolls in any way.

  10. Also, Dan, your assumption that “That is a complete departure from past practice, even in comparison to the Colonial era” is factually inaccurate. During the Colonial era, government officials would go through great lengths to get editors to divulge the names of LTE writers, the John Peter Zenger case being the most famous example of that.

    The particulars of Internet communication make truly “untraceable” anonymity nearly impossible for the average person, but most people today favor being able to write their opinions with some degree of anonymity to the general public.

    We live in an age in which employers can punish (even fire) employees because of things they write on their Facebook pages that have nothing to do with their workplace. Public employees have lost their First Amendment rights to speak in the workplace, per the Garcetti v. Ceballos ruling of SCOTUS. Businesses can be boycotted if the owner expresses an opinion on a hot button issue such as abortion rights, same-sex marriage, Second Amendment, etc. And now we know that the government is keeping track of our phone calls and Internet activity. If today’s news executives don’t understand why people feel they NEED anonymity to participate in the public forums on news websites, they are being either naive or arrogant (and probably both).

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: Here’s what I wrote: “By contrast, most online commenting systems that allow anonymity are completely anonymous, so that even the news organization that’s hosting those comments doesn’t know the identity of the commenters…. That is a complete departure from past practice, even in comparison to the Colonial era.”

      How is that factually incorrect, as you claim? The Colonial printers knew who their anonymous contributors were. In Zenger’s case it was the people who hired him to start his newspaper. There is very little precedent for newspapers’ running material from contributors who are anonymous even to them. The only thing I can think of is the call-in features that some papers ran a couple of decades ago — the “nut line,” which, thankfully, seems to have slipped into oblivion.

      I think a real-names commenting policy is one way of ensuring a civil, useful comments section, but not the only way. I’ve written favorably on any number of occasions about the New Haven Independent’s online community, which is loaded with anonymous comments (but no longer anonymous to the publisher). It takes a lot of work, though. All things considered, I lean toward real names.

  11. “The key to the problem of trolls is to delete their comments and, for repeat offenders, block their access. But don’t turn away the majority of anonymous commenters who are not trolls in any way.”

    But here’s the crux of the issue, and it is nearly always overlooked in this debate: Without real names, it’s damn hard to block bad actors.

    It’s very easy to obtain multiple e-mail addresses and invent any alias one wishes. IP blocking is ineffective and counter productive. So what do you block if you don’t have the user’s real name (which can easily be verified through online databases)?

    It’s much harder (though not impossible) to spoof a real identity.

    At The Batavian, we’ve had a real name policy from the beginning and one that has evolved and improved over time. As a result, we have a community forum where we are a free to discuss any hot topic issue — abortion, gay rights, gun control, Obama, the Tea Party, racism — without rancor, without trolls, without bad actors.

    But real names isn’t the reason. Real names is just a tool. If the GateHouse papers are expecting real names to be a magic bullet, they will be disappointed. You can’t have a mature discussion community without an investment. It takes real people reviewing accounts, warning people, banning people, staying on top of the discussion and — very importantly — participating in the discussion (being a participant is what gives a moderator credibility with the community). Without those things, any attempt at real online community will fail.

    I find the “Founders would be rolling in their grave” argument vapid and and a red herring. There are all kinds of forums these days for people to have their say in an anonymous fashion without spreading feces on my privately owned business window. I’m quite sure the Founders would support the right of a business owner in a free enterprise system to maintain that business according to his or her own standards and best practices, and in a manner that the owner believes would deliver the most profitable results.

    I’m not against anonymity online — though you will carry more credibility with me in most cases if you use your real name — but I do believe it’s not right for my business, and I don’t believe it’s right for most community news businesses.

    Let’s not forget for those people with legitimate news to share there are ways to contact the editor or reporter and be vetted before publication that still protects the anonymity of the source and gets the news out. That is how professional news organizations operate.

    At the end of the day, this is a business decision, not a content decision. A vibrant, healthy discussion community will make your audience larger, leading to revenue growth. A discussion community full of feces will drive people away and damage your credibility as a news organization. Why any news organization would allow anonymous comments is beyond me.

  12. Dan — You’re a good sport to keep this thread going.

    Here is what is inaccurate about your comment: “… so that even the news organization that’s hosting those comments doesn’t know the identity of the commenters…. That is a complete departure from past practice, even in comparison to the Colonial era.” In fact, Colonial and post-Revolutionary editors often did not know the identities of all of their contributors (James Franklin, for example, clearly didn’t, which is why he published the “Silence Dogood” essays left at his front door, even when he refused to publish submissions handed to him in person by his younger brother, Benjamin). Benjamin Russell, editor of the Massachusetts Centinel, also did not, and when he proposed to start collecting and keeping a list of the names of submissions, he was roundly lambasted (see my essay on the issue in AJR, The editors who reprinted the Federalist Papers throughout the newly liberated colonies did not know who “Publius” was until many years later, after Alexander Hamilton’s death and a list of his claimed “Federalist” essays was found. To this day, historians are not sure exactly who “Federal Farmer” was, nor many other of the Anti-Federalists whose essays were re-published in various newspapers.

    Conversely, it is ludicrous to suggest that editors may somehow “know” who is writing simply because an opinion includes a “real name.” The person could hand the letter to an editor in person, and show photo ID, and the editor would still have no real knowledge about the person’s motives, beliefs, rapport in the community, etc. The “real names” myth is nothing but a bunch of smoke and mirrors in that regard; in fact, many editors still get burned to this day with faked names, particularly with “astroturf” LTE campaigns.

    The problem with your argument, though, is that you clearly have a strong disdain toward anonymous forums based more on how you feel than what you actually know. That’s a very common conceit among journalists who were trained in the late 20th century (including me — I “hated” anonymous forums until I actually started studying them in the late ’90s). But having a common bias against something does not lead to objective consideration of the facts about the historical, ethical and legal complexities of anonymity in public forums.

    Just look at the rhetoric of your post and your follow up comments: You have a woodcut of a monster identified as “Anonymous commenter” (suggesting that anonymous commenters are less than human); you refer to anonymous comments as a “scourge”; you equate “anonymous” with “hateful” without any shred of evidence to support the (erroneous) conflation; you refer to anonymous call-in lines as “nut lines” (which are still used by some papers — our local weekly actually started its call-in line just in the past year, and it instantly expanded the discussion in the community on any number of issues; it is hardly a “nut line”). It is unfair, unkind, and actually quite incivil to use such hateful stereotypes, especially when presented with evidence and arguments that suggest the stereotypes are, indeed, unfair and unkind.

  13. Dan Kennedy

    @Bill: Given my fulsome praise for the New Haven Independent’s anonymous commenting system, it’s just bad faith on your part to claim that my reference to “the scourge of anonymous, hateful comments” was a characterization of what I think about all anonymous comments. If it wasn’t obvious to you immediately, it was certainly obvious by the time you posted your comment that I was distinguishing “hateful” anonymous comments from nonhateful ones.

    I also love your imputing my stance to my advancing years. I was there at the beginning of online news, and I was a huge supporter of all kinds of audience interaction, including anonymous comments. As I’ve seen how it’s played out, I’ve changed my mind, and now believe the conversation needs to be tightly managed — with real names being a useful tool.

  14. Haber

    (Note: For obvious reasons, I have approved this comment even though the commenter does not use his full name. — DK)

    I work for the government and part of my conditions of employment I’m to refrain from *public* criticism of the government. So…the goverment doesn’t allow us to use our real names for online commentary but too many newspapers are saying that’s the only way they’ll allow comments. That’s a large number of people who are no longer allowed to comment on public policy. I’m now looking into a fake Facebook account.

  15. Linda Dunbrack

    Too often the anonymous comments are not really public policy commentary, but merely potshots at other human beings. I rarely find anything of any real use or significance in the comment sections. I’m not feeling any great loss with the disappearance of the comments

    I’m happy to give people my real name when I comment on an article. However, I am not likely to comment if I am required to login using Facebook or LinkedIn. This just seems lazy to me. There are reasonable alternatives.

    Why not ask people for their names and towns? It is actually pretty easy to spot the fakes, because they are usually very familiar with their community politics, but no one has ever heard of them. Also, the comments are often not civil. If someone complains, then check the white pages, and if nothing there, with their town clerk, since everyone in Massachusetts has to fill out a census form. Remove the ID you follow up with the person and they do not provide evidence that the identity is real.

    If someone has an anonymous ID and no one complains, then “no harm no foul,” right? That gives domestic violence victims and others with a legitimate need for shielding an option.

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