There’s a conventional wisdom out there in the online journalism world that: 1.) News site comments will automatically be better if people have to use real names, and 2.) Using Facebook for your comments will accomplish this.
I’ve said many times before that I don’t think anonymity is the problem. My campaign on that seems to be a lost cause so far. As a former comment moderator and current manager of social media accounts, I know for a fact that people have absolutely no problem spouting hateful views and violent rhetoric under their real name. I see it every day.
Aside from that, there’s also all kinds of evidence that Facebook comments aren’t the end-all, be-all answer on this front.
As my friend Jeff Sonderman recently wrote at Poynter, Facebook comments can be a boon to news sites in lots of ways: Increased Facebook traffic referrals, fast page load times, an easy out-of-the-box comment solution.
While there is a rule on Facebook that one has to use their real name, it’s not always followed. I have several Facebook friends who use false names for various personal reasons – and they are all, essentially, anonymous. That said, they are still identifiable to their friends, which still keeps some people in check with their online comments. (Though this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone.)
The biggest threat to the alleged transparency and decency of Facebook-powered commenting lies in the same tool many news organizations use to communicate with readers: Facebook Pages.
Just speaking anecdotally here (if you have stats to back me up, please help), I’ve seen an uptick of abusive posts and trolling on Facebook ever since it rolled out its new pages in February. That rollout included the new ability to use Facebook as a page.
This change made it possible for just anyone to set up a fake character on Facebook – and then use Facebook as that character. On The Huffington Posts’s pages (on which I am an administrator) and the pages of other groups and news organizations, I’ve seen these fake accounts spreading spam, trolling the page’s regular users and making hateful statements under the guise of a made-up character.
Here’s a view examples of some alias accounts I found on news pages (or skip below if you want):
Even before this change, there was a history of false profiles spamming and trolling Facebook, the addition of Use-As-Page to the toolbox only gave trolls a new way to stay in business. Facebook has staff that deals with those accounts when they are found or reported, but it certainly can’t be easy for them to keep up with people who are dead set on being trolly.
(Related aside: When I worked as a comment moderator for the Cincinnati Enquirer, a troublesome site user with many usernames emailed me to say, “I’m retired and have nothing else to do but create new accounts every time you block me. I can make your live miserable.” This is just a sampling of the mentality of trolls, folks. Here’s another.)
Now, I’ve got no doubt that some news sites have seen higher quality discussion after installing Facebook commenting; it’s definitely better than many of in-house or other out-of-the-box solutions I’ve seen on news websites. It likely is the best option for those sites that don’t have the technical expertise and manpower to host and manage a heavy flow of onsite comments day in and day out – so long as they don’t mind handing a big part of their community to Facebook.
I’m just warning that news sites shouldn’t assume that Facebook on its own will solve their commenting problems. Users can and will still be anonymous (or even identifiable) hateful trolls. To make it work, you still need a daily moderation workflow and a newsroom-wide commitment to not only reading story/blog comments, but responding to them.