The Anonymity Debate: Should commenters be allowed pseudonyms?

We recently discussed the issue of trolling–the practice of posting inflammatory comments with the intent of provoking others or igniting some type of emotional response.  With the recent media attention on cyber bullying, trolling can almost be seen as a form of that, played out in the arena of public opinion.  James Rainey wrote an interesting article in the LA Times, “On the Media: Your words, your real name,” regarding this very issue.

In attempt to counteract some of the mudslinging and derogatory commenting, the media has experimented with different methods of control, trying to keep the online commenting environment from becoming “too ugly.”  Sometimes that involves tighter monitoring from the moderator, but this can be difficult given the amount of content that many media outlets put on the web, and the dwindling staffing resources that they’ve been forced to contend with.  Rainey reports that big media outlets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times have employed staff whose sole job is to moderate the comment boards. Recently, the LA Times has adopted a self-monitoring system using a red flag icon that other readers can click to “report abuse.”  But can handing over the policing of the comment boards to the public really help solve the orignal problem?

The latest solution for managing, what’s become a costly and time-intensive feature in online news articles, is requiring readers to sign-in with their Facebook accounts.  The Bay Area News Group (which includes San Jose Mercury News) and the Los Angeles News Group (which includes the San Bernardino Sun, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star News, Los Angeles Daily News, and The Long Beach Press Telegram) have both moved to a model requiring Facebook log-ins.  The reasoning behind the decision was that eliminating the anonymity and forcing readers to sign-in with their real identities kept commenters accountable and cutback on the trolling.  The Los Angeles News Group has created a FAQs page explaining their reasoning for the change in policy stating: “We’ve found that article commenting became more civil when a person is easily identifiable with their name and face attached to a comment.”  Still, others argue that this new sanitation effort is a subtle form of censorship and doesn’t grant equal access.

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3 comments on “The Anonymity Debate: Should commenters be allowed pseudonyms?

  1. I’m reminded of this story about a writer who tracked down someone who had left nasty comments to something he’d written.

    Also, I know that Blizzard once tried to make the online forums for World of Warcraft non-anonymous. They quickly backtracked, due to customer outrage.

  2. Wow, interesting issue! I read this earlier in the week and thought I would come up with a more reasoned response if I waited to respond…but I haven’t. I’m still thinking about the same questions. From these examples, it seems that anonymous comments are synonymous with abnormal discourse. They’re rude, hateful, even threatening.

    Would we allow this to happen in other types of communication? How would they be treated? What makes online forums an acceptable place for people to do it anonymously, without accountability or consequences…unless the writers hunts them down or calls them at home? It doesn’t seem right.

    • Hmmm…interesting questions. I never thought about how these types of comments would play out in other types of communication, but I suspect there’s a linkage to the medium of delivery. The news articles about cyber bullying seem to point out that it’s much more easy to slander someone without face-to-face contact, so the Internet makes that possible.

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