Would you give your credit card number to be allowed to have a letter to the editor printed in the newspaper? Think it’s an absurd question? Maybe not.
Beginning today, The Sun Chronicle (in Attleboro, MA) is abolishing anonymous comments the only foolproof way they know how: By attaching usernames to credit transactions.
The paper is charging commenters a one-time fee of 99 cents to be paid by credit card to that each user’s comments and community name will be tied to the name on the paying card (which also is tied to their real address and phone number).
This isn’t all that new, of course. It is a similar approach as what Honolulu news start-up Civil Beat does for their site’s discussion membership level, which charges 99 cents a month via Paypal to leave comments on the site. When Jay Rosen was here visiting us at TBD a few weeks back, he sang the praises of this system for keeping trolls out of their (notably civil) online discussions.
I, as you might gather from past posts, do not agree with the entire premise of this plan for several reasons.
First and foremost, this move can and will eliminate certain segments of the paper’s readership from ever being able to post comments. Aside from the trolls they want to eliminate, the paper can also count out those who do not have a credit card. This can include young people, those with credit problems or otherwise bad finances, those who don’t trust online financial systems – and numerous other possibilities I’m sure aren’t coming to mind right away.
And anonymity, while it can breed ugliness in online comments, has its virtues as well. The ability to speak out without identification is a necessary part of sometimes difficult discussions (like the kind we have on news sites).
Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation expounded eloquently on this point in a different case (involving an embarrassing edict and retraction by the gaming company Blizzard):
Anonymous speech has always been an integral part of free speech because it enables individuals to speak up and speak out when they otherwise may find reason to hide or self-censor. Behind the veil of anonymity, individuals are more free to surface honest observations, unheard complaints, unpopular opinions…
Without anonymity, the comments may end up being quite banal. The next time the Sun Chronicle wants to crowdsource a story (if they do that sort of thing), they can rule out getting anyone to talk openly about their medical conditions, their families, if they witnessed a crime, if they’re having money problems – anything they wouldn’t want the whole community to know.
And finally, is this sort of step really necessary to control comments anyway? As I’ve said before, it is possible to create a robust online community by simply being more engaged as a staff. Better community via interaction is what we aim to do where I work.
Going back to the Civil Beat model, it should be noted the site’s discussions have staff hosts who are an active and visible presence in their threads. How much of Civil Beats, er, civility, is actually better attributed to staff interaction as opposed to their identified commenters?
Of course, that level of interaction requires staff hours most news orgs can’t or won’t spare. There are other, less time-intensive methods that are built into comment systems that other sites have managed to use to control trolls.
As the Editors Weblog noted:
…many prominent publications such as The Globe and Mail and NYT are able to maintain flourishing online communities by instituting a combination of user-rankings (inappropriate comments are quickly down-voted while insightful ones get promoted to the top of the page) and paid moderators.
It seems like a lot of overkill to ban anonymous comments in this fashion when there are other options available that can yield similar results – and yet still allow open discussion.
Facebook comments can’t guarantee a lack of anonymity
On August 19, 2011
In Community Engagement, Facebook, Industry News & Notes
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.
One thing Facebook doesn’t do, however, is prevent anonymity (as the same article and several others insist).
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.