A story in The Boston Globe reports that a caustic online commenter appears to be posting “vicious Internet attacks” against Mayor Michelle Wu and others from a city email address and a shared subscription used by city councilors and staff members. The comments have been published under the handle “Interested Party.”
Globe reporter Emma Platoff writes that “the comments posted by the Interested Party account stand out because they appear to be authored by one or more of those public officials’ colleagues — members of the City Council or council employees — according to account details and people with knowledge of the subscription.”
It’s not the first time I’ve seen a news outlet do this. The one that stands out in my mind involved a Haverhill city councilor who was exposed years ago by the local newspaper. I’ll get to that. But, first, more on the Globe’s story.
Although the Globe doesn’t have enough information to identify the person (or persons) behind the comments, Platoff appears to have used internal information provided by every user (“account details”) in order to get as far as she did. If you look at comments on the Globe’s website (or just about any other website), you won’t find any email addresses — that’s information you provide when you sign up, but it doesn’t appear alongside your screen name. Likewise, the Globe almost certainly has access to each commenter’s IP (internet protocol) address, which can help the paper locate where a user is based.
Nor does the Globe warn users that it reserves the right to use information commenters provide in order to track them down. If you try to post a comment, you’ll find guidelines that speak to what’s allowed and what isn’t; but there’s nothing about the possibility of being outed. (The guidelines refer not to the Globe but to its free sister site, Boston.com. I’m not sure whether that means the rules haven’t been updated for years or if it’s simply an indication that the same rules are in effect at both places.) Another message advises you, “This comment may appear on your public profile.” But when you click on the “Public Profile FAQ,” you hit a 404.
The question is whether it’s ethical to use information that the Globe’s subscribers freely give the paper in order to track them down. Users have a right to expect that their information won’t be used to violate their privacy. Platoff wasn’t able to expose “Interested Party,” but she’d clearly like to. Is that fair?
All of that brings me to the Haverhill situation I mentioned up top. In 2008, The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover reported that a Haverhill city councilor named James Donahue had posted comments on the paper’s website under at least 38 different screen names, an accusation that Donahue partly confirmed, though he claimed that some of the comments had actually been posted by someone else. As I wrote at the time, Donahue’s activities included lambasting the mayor and some of his colleagues. The Tribune apparently used the IP address attached to Donahue’s multitudinous screen names in order to locate him and to figure out that all those screen names were coming from the same computer. The Tribune defended its actions in an editorial:
It is not the general practice of this newspaper to seek the identity of those who comment on stories, although there is no explicit guarantee of anonymity. Virtually all the management of the comments section of the online edition is aimed at removing posts that are profane, racist or personal attacks.
However, one of the forum moderators noticed a pattern of posts under dozens of different names, and then discovered that they had all come from the same computer address. When it became clear that they were coming from the computer of an elected public official, it became our obligation to let the public know.
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.
I was uncomfortable with the Tribune’s actions, and I said so, writing: “It seems to me that the paper has chosen to humiliate Donahue for doing something the paper itself implicitly invited him to do, and that it used information available to no one else.” But many of my commenters disagreed with me and sided with the Tribune, arguing — as the paper itself had — that Donahue’s status as a public official overrode any expectations of online privacy that he might have had.
Which brings me back to the Globe and “Interested Party.” Arguably, there is a public-interest reason to try to expose the commenter. The comments are being posted by a public official or officials, whether they are members of the city council or employees. It’s a story, and it will be interesting to see whether the Globe is able to take the next step and name names. It makes me a little queasy, as The Eagle-Tribune’s actions did 15 years ago. On balance, though, I think my commenters were right in 2008 and that the Globe is right now.
A final observation: The Globe’s comments are a toxic-waste pit. The paper shouldn’t have them unless it’s willing to screen all of them before they’re posted. If that’s impossible, then get rid of them. Plenty of news organizations have, and no one seems to miss them.