Outing an anonymous commenter leads to a libel suit against Nieman Lab

Is it acceptable for a website operator to make use of registration data not known to anyone else in order to expose the identity of an offensive commenter? That’s one of the main issues in a libel suit against Nieman Journalism Lab founder Joshua Benton. Bill Grueskin explains the case in detail at the Columbia Journalism Review. (Disclosure: I know and like Benton, and wrote for him from time to time when he was the Lab’s editor; he is still a staff writer. I continue to contribute to the Lab occasionally.)

Way back in 2008, when the internet was still powered by coal, The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover did something similar. I wrote about it at the time. A Haverhill city councilor was caught posting to the newspaper’s website under 38 different screen names. The Eagle-Tribune outed him using information no one else could have known, arguing:

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.

Two differences between the cases. First, the person suing Benton, former Temple University journalism professor Francesca Viola, is not a public official. Second, Viola claims that in addition to exposing her for comments she made at Nieman Lab, Benton also attributed to her anti-Muslim comments made on another site — and she contends she did not make those comments.

As Grueskin notes, these problems can easily be avoided by requiring commenters to register and post under their real names. But, he adds, “an administrator can’t have it both ways, promising anonymity and then using special access to expose someone’s identity.” I agree — and I remain troubled by the choice that The Eagle-Tribune made nearly 13 years ago as well.

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