Should Anonymous Commenters Be Treated Like Sources By News Sites?

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Unlike granting a source anonymity after careful consideration and vetting, news comments sections posters are unvetted and often given a free-for-all for their unsourced voices.

One important change made when Great Britain’s The Times and Sunday Times re-launched their Web sites May 25 was the banning of anonymous comments on the two news sites. The Guardian reported May 26 that The Independent would be following suit soon.

The Guardian wondered if the banning of anonymous comments would “be part of a trend for newspaper websites” and if it would “raise the tone of online debate.”

Blogger and journalist of 29 years Eric Thomason wrote May 5 on “Journalism Because It Matters” about the great anonymous comment debate, which iMediaEthics has written about here and here.

The issue of anonymous commenting is very important.  On one side, those arguing for anonymous comments often say requiring real name identification is prohibitive of free speech.  On the other side, many argue against anonymous comments, saying that of course the First Amendment protects free speech, but it doesn’t protect individuals from saying whatever they want without accountability.

Thomason acknowledged that some support allowing people to comment anonymously because “it livens and broadens the conversation,” but noted that some argue requiring registration “would keep some of the unsavory and just plain mean comments out of the discussion.”

Focusing on the argument for requiring real name registration in online commenting, Thomason discussed both Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Michelle Mclellan’s April 12 blog and Howard Owens’ April 2 blog.

Mclellan reported that Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis requires real name use because it’s the same standard that letters to the editor required.  McLellan reported Lewis said “I’ve always wondered how or why a newspaper would decide — for decades — to have such rigid policies about anonymity in letters and stories only to completely disregard them online.”

Mclellan wrote she thinks news organizations don’t require real name registration because they “don’t want to devote resources to verifying identities and fear they would lose users if they required registration.”  She noted that Grand Rapids, Michigan local news site The Rapidian also requires real name registration.

She reported that Roberta King, vice president of Grand Rapids Community Foundation which co-funds the site, said “anonymous comments destroy civil discourse and people hide behind false names.”

Mclellan wrote that The Plain Dealer’s columnist Connie Schultz uses a discussion forum on Facebook which provides identifications for people.  Note, as Mclellan did, that The Plain Dealer outed an anonymous commenter this spring.  As iMediaEthics reported April 1, the newspaper revealed a commenter, “lawmiss,” to be county judge Shirley Strickland Saffold.  Saffold has since sued the newspaper for doing so to the tune of $50 million.

Mclellan wrote that she thinks it might “make sense” to require real name identification on smaller sites, but that “it may be impossible to enforce” real name registration on “more heavily trafficked sites.”  Mclellan offered The Washington Post’s forthcoming “two-tier system” which will display “trusted” users’ comments (users who have followed the Post’s comment guidelines previously) first.

The Post’s public editor Andrew Alexander wrote April 2, “Repeat violators or discourteous agitators will be grouped elsewhere or blocked outright. Comments of first-timers will be screened by a human being.”  In order to see comments made by “trolls” or un-trusted users, readers must choose to click to those comments.

Mclellan wrote that “active engagement, clear guidelines and enabling users to report offensive comments are key,” because even real name requirement won’t be the end all.

Thomason also discussed a blog by Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian.  Owens blogged that he requires real-name usage on The Batavian because that “readers have a right to know who is saying what.”

Owens wrote “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 also noted that just because users identify themselves with their real names it doesn’t mean that users are still not abusive of the system.  Owens wrote that The Batavian has banned two people who real-name registered but still abused the system.

Owens wrote “In a policy that requires only pseudonymity or persistent identity, if you kick Julie123 off your site on Tuesday, by Thursday, she can be Becky123 and you’re none the wiser.”

Owens wrote that he thinks news organizations that let people comment anonymously  “are committing a grievous ethical blunder. There is no justification or excuse for it. They are tarnishing their brand and credibility at a time they can least afford to devalue either.”

Thomason wrote that he doesn’t exactly agree with the idea that anonymous commenters can “destroy civil discourse”, but he thinks “they can dilute it and steer discourse away from civility.”

Thomason wrote that the strongest argument for using real names online is “newspapers hold their letter writers to strict guidelines and no anonymity, so why shouldn’t we hold commenters to the same high standards.”

Tech Dirt wrote March 22 that it allows anonymous comments and has “benefited tremendously from allowing that sort of level of speech.”  But, the site doesn’t prefer anonymous comments and in order to encourage users to identify themselves, they give “greater benefits for those who have verified accounts.”  So, while the organization may not ban those who won’t give their real names, it does indicate that it would prefer real identification.

One commenter on that article requested a system to at least identify each anonymous commenter as “Commenter #1 or #2 and so on” in order for readers to learn if one user is spamming the comments section or if multiple users really all feel the same way.

The Global Times reported May 5 that China is going to require real name registration, but didn’t give a timetable for when it would be officially unrolled.  Global Times reported that the director general of the State Council Information Office, Wang Chen, said that initiative will “promote the real-name registration system over the Internet positively and steadily” and will “implement the real-name registration in the communication sectors of cyberspace.”

These ideas by Thomason, Mclellan, Owens and their respective interviewees show a push for full identification of commenters.  Is there a real push back for keeping commenters anonymous?  News organizations are expected to identify their sources under most circumstances.  Letters to the editor historically have required full identification by name and address.

So why does the online world grant a new anonymity to users?

In order for a news organization to grant anonymity, the Society of Professional Journalists advises to:

“Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” and

“Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.”

Given the above, iMediaEthics questions if any comments section should be treated the same as editorial space. Unlike granting a source anonymity after careful consideration and vetting, news comments sections posters are unvetted and often given a free-for-all for their unsourced voices. In iMediaEthics’ view, the use of real names in the comments section provides a new level of accountability to what is now almost a blood sport of anonymity.

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Should Anonymous Commenters Be Treated Like Sources By News Sites?

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