Anonymous? Website comments are not all created equal

Some Seattle editors weigh in on the issue of how to handle anonymous and out-of-line comments attached to news stories.
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Copies of The Stranger await a shopkeeper in Pioneer Square.

Some Seattle editors weigh in on the issue of how to handle anonymous and out-of-line comments attached to news stories.

It happens every time a news story on a controversial topic hits the web: Angry rants, nasty name-calling, personal attacks, and defensive replies.

All can be found regularly in the comments sections of online news articles and opinion columns, including many blogs (and Some topics, such as public safety, racial conflicts, immigration policy, and urban bicycling, seem to draw the most vehement responses.

Many readers, probably the majority, post their comments anonymously. Unlike printed letters to the editor, on which most newspapers ask writers to include a real name, street address, and telephone number for verification, online news sites don'ꀙt typically require full public identification. Even if commenters are asked to register online, they may use nicknames to conceal their true identities.

The Buffalo News recently became the first major American daily newspaper to ban anonymous comments on its website, which provoked nationwide discussion on the policy.

As a journalist, regular online news consumer, and occasional commenter, I go back and forth on my own view toward anonymous comments. I'ꀙm accustomed to putting my name next to my opinions in articles and on the web, so I don'ꀙt mind identifying myself in a discussion forum. I figure that if I'ꀙm willing to write an opinion, I should be willing to back it up with my name.

However, I'ꀙm also well aware that many people, including some of my friends and family, are far less comfortable leaving their names on open forums on the Internet. They aren'ꀙt accustomed to being a public face or name, and they worry about privacy and personal attacks. In some cases, they may be commenting on topics that relate to their own workplace or social networks and feel they can be more honest by remaining anonymous.

As an advocate for free and open dialogue, I'ꀙd rather see comment sections filled with posts rather than completely empty. And, for my own personal needs as a journalist, comments often help me write a better story or follow up news with subsequent articles. I do cringe, however, when reading particularly nasty attacks in online forums.

When Washington News Council president John Hamer asked me if I wanted to weigh in on the issue, I decided that, given my own conflicted views on the subject, I'ꀙd like to hear what local editors are doing and how they feel about anonymous comments. I emailed questions to The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut, West Seattle Blog, and the Federal Way Mirror, plus a few other news outlets that did not respond. Here are their responses:

1. Do most people on your site post anonymously?

Joe Copeland, Deputy Editor: I would say it'ꀙs a good majority that are anonymous; some of those have made it clear who they are and don'ꀙt seem to have any problem being addressed by name.

Andy Hobbs, Federal Way Mirror Editor: We have regular posters and few, if any, use their real names.

Bob Payne, Director of Communities: We don'ꀙt know for sure, but suspect that'ꀙs the case.

Tracy Record, West Seattle Blog Editor: Yes.

Mike Seely, Seattle Weekly Managing Editor: If you define anonymous broadly enough to encompass handles and nicknames, then yes.

2. Do you think people should put their names with their comments?

Copeland: My view is that, at this point, it'ꀙs the quality of the comment more than whether they post their names. It'ꀙs always a plus in terms of credibility, transparency, and fostering discussion if their name is there, but I think online communities also seem able to create good discussions without that. It looks to me like it'ꀙs more important to the online readers that posters stick to one identity.

Hobbs: I would take comments more seriously if those commenters signed their real names.

Payne: While we may wish for this, it'ꀙs simply not possible. A large Web site like ours has no practical way to verify that the name is, in fact, that person'ꀙs real name. Not without expending a great amount of time and resources. It would require a mechanism to authenticate identities, which we don'ꀙt have and which it would be cost-prohibitive to implement. (News organizations with pay walls are able to require real names because they require credit cards for payment.)

Record: If they want to, they are certainly welcome to. I absolutely, vehemently, do not believe in requiring it. You are not required to identify yourself when speaking publicly in any venue or forum and I don'ꀙt believe you need to be required to do so when speaking online, either.

Seely: Personally, I'ꀙd appreciate it if they did. When I or a colleague chimes in, we always identify ourselves by name. But the web'ꀙs gone too far for that to be reined in, I'ꀙm afraid.

3. Have you thought about making it mandatory for all posters to leave their real names?

Hobbs: The topic has surfaced, but that is up to our web department. I think the online comments section is its own type of forum where anonymity is expected and appreciated. Kudos to those with the courage to sign their real names.

Record: I am not interested in doing that. Web site owners who choose to do so are certainly exercising their prerogative, but I don'ꀙt believe in mandatory real names or mandatory registration for story comments. If there is a certain type of discussion you are trying to foster, set some guidelines and enforce them. Also, participation in the discussion is vital! Doesn'ꀙt mean you have to answer every comment, but many threads have opportunities for you to interact with your "readers," and when they know someone is paying attention, they also tend to behave more civilly than if they think they'ꀙre all just alone in the room free to blow spitwads at each other. Commenters also do much more than contribute opinion — they often contribute facts that make your stories even richer, your coverage better. If you can be trusted to keep your site a clean, well-lit place, they will feel good about doing that, instead of feeling like they are wading into a mud puddle, holding their nose, just to try bravely to say something they feel must be said.

Seely: Sure, we'ꀙve thought about it, but ultimately concluded, at this point, that the horse is not only out of the barn, but it'ꀙs on the other side of the continent.

4. Do certain topics elicit more inflammatory comments?

Copeland: I haven'ꀙt noticed a big difference among topics in harsh comments recently, or even that many problematic postings. There may have been a bit more rancor on health care while it was still being decided. Recently, there have been a couple health care postings that are concealed ads for health insurance. (So far today, that'ꀙs the only thing that we have had to delete.)

Hobbs: Any topics dealing with political 'ꀜsacred cows'ꀝ like guns, abortion, etc. Any articles with an overt ideological stance will attract comments.

Payne: There are certain topics that sometimes result in more-than-usual comments that violate our terms of service, particularly with regard to personal attacks, profanity, and hate speech. These topics would be immigration, racial issues, crime stories ,and national politics.

Record: Sure, but that'ꀙs not an issue particularly germane to online comments. Same goes with any form of discussion — some topics are more controversial than others, period, no matter what the discussion venue/format is. Politics, crime, off-leash dogs'ꀦ

Seely: Anything that has to do with race relations, like the recent white cop/black girl jaywalk punch incident, is consistently more inflammatory. Guns too.

5. Have you done anything to deal with inappropriate comments? Do you remove comments from your site? What comments do you remove?

Copeland: We are pretty vigilant about removing comments that are personal attacks or are obscene. We also try to monitor comments to at least some degree and note some of the good ones (perhaps 1 in every 10 or so) as an "Editor'ꀙs Pick." That'ꀙs something which started long before I got here, and I think it'ꀙs a great way to accomplish several things, including sending a message that we value thoughtful comment. In terms of the problem comments, our readers are good about alerting us to questionable material. Every comment has a spot where anyone can click to have it reviewed as inappropriate. But I also think the site has a readership that values good discussion, so it doesn'ꀙt seem to require a great deal of policing by us.

Hobbs: We have deleted a couple of comments that crossed the line (language, race). Mostly, there is no issue. A regular commenter once posted something that slammed the subject of a column. The subject in that column had just died and was known in Republican political circles. The regular commenter did not read closely enough, and his post was rather disrespectful to a man who just died. I knew the commenter wouldn'ꀙt have left that comment had he taken a closer look at the column. I alerted him, and he voluntarily removed his own post.

Payne: Recently we updated our Commenting 'ꀜFrequently Asked Questions'ꀝ section to provide more detail for readers about what'ꀙs not allowed. And we'ꀙve been taking a more vigorous approach to banning commenters who violate those terms. In the last month or so we'ꀙve done all we can to highlight those rules, including new text in red at the top of each comment thread. We are also training additional staff members in the newsroom to help monitor comments that are reported by readers for violating our rules. Yes, we remove comments frequently, but only ones that violate our terms of service.

Record: Of course. And this is the true solution to the problem, NOT blaming it on 'ꀜanonymous commenters.'ꀝ Anonymity isn'ꀙt the problem, irresponsible website owners are. We have rules. Not a lot of them, just a few that make it clear that hate speech is not welcome, intra-discussion insults are not welcome, and so forth. My favorite rule, not that you asked, is: You can call my comment idiotic, but you can'ꀙt call me an idiot. When you weed out name calling that way, you get rid of a lot of'ꀦwell'ꀦidiocy. And if you have a rule that people cannot be criticized for a trait with which they are born, such as sexual orientation, race, gender, size, then you get rid of a lot more useless crudeness and hatefulness. Comments that break our rules are either deleted or, if they had been held for moderation (we have certain triggers), they are not approved. Our rules also include a few parameters beyond the civility factor.

Seely: When a comment rises to the level of slander or libel, we'ꀙll oftentimes remove it.

What do you think? Should anonymous comments be allowed or should real names be required?

This story originally appeared on the Washington News Council's blog.


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