Why we allow anonymous comments

A reader recently wrote in asking why the Chronicle allows anonymous or pseudonymous comments on its website while requiring that letter writers verify their names and addresses before their letters are printed.

It was a hard question for me to answer, if only because it seemed obvious that we should be offering anonymous comments — despite the headaches they give me on an almost daily basis. Yet when I sat down to write back to this reader, “obvious” did not translate into “easy to explain.”

I knew we should offer anonymous comments. We always have. Yet, why was that? Did someone make a measured decision at some point in the Chronicle’s online past? I know we didn’t question continuing the practice when we upgraded to a new website in 2010.

So I started reading back through my links and finding new ones. (The bookmark trail is here.) I found what Mathew Ingram had to say at GigaOm particularly useful in putting together my answer. Also useful was “No Comment” by Rem Rieder at the American Journalism Review.

At any rate, this is the response I sent to the reader. Let me know how you think I did in the comments.

Sorry to be long in replying, but your question is a really solid one. There are so many arguments back and forth out there in the world of journalism that it was hard for me to find a way to encapsulate that for you.

Yes, we require verified names for letters to the editor. No, we don’t do any verification for online comments — all you need is a working email address to open an account on our website.

Is that a discrepancy? Not in my view. Online comments are not letters to the editor. They are two different ways for our readers to submit comments, and they are both the product of the mediums they were created for. They come from different worlds; we cannot hold one to the standard of the other.

I agree that the state of discourse in the comment section is awful. The commenters are often vicious, mean, bigoted and spiteful, but requiring real names online would box out some of the commenters who rely on anonymity to express themselves without fear of repercussion or punishment.

Besides, experience has shown that a vile environment in the online comments section is less a product of anonymity or pseudonymity than it is a lack of staff engagement with readers. If our reporters more often took part in the online discussion, answering reader comments and questions, the tenor of the discussion there would improve. Commenters would begin to see that a human being reads and reacts to comments, rather than the website being a forum for shouting into the void.

More staff engagement is something I would like to see in the future.
Unfortunately, our reporters have their hands full just covering their beats and writing their stories. Asking them at this point to moderate the comments beneath their stories would be too burdensome.

Another major reason for not requiring real names online is that it would be nearly impossible to verify them without requiring people to submit Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or some other identification, which the Chronicle would then have to process. This would guarantee real names are used online, but it would be laborious and expensive for the Chronicle. It would exclude readers who lack the proper identification—as well as people who need anonymity or a screen name to comment on controversial topics.

A few newspapers in the country have experimented with verification systems.
Some have switched to Facebook comments for this purpose because that site has a reputation for requiring real names (though it does not verify identities either). The newspapers that have experimented with these systems have seen the number of comments posted to their sites drop dramatically, and they have generally not seen an improvement in commenters’ online behavior.

I am not interested at this time in stifling the comments of those who cannot verify their identities with a credit card number. Neither am I interested in losing a lot of our commenters. These people are regular readers who spend lots of time talking — yes, quite often rudely — about the news and the issues surrounding it. Comments are an outlet for them.

We do moderate comments. Readers have the ability to flag comments as inappropriate, and I and others at the paper look through the comments we receive daily. Those that are clearly against policy are removed. Sometimes commenters are contacted via email to discuss a comment and its deletion.
Sometimes, off-color comments remain because, while impolite, they may add to a discussion. There is no accounting for taste, as they say.

As to the accuracy of commenters’ statements, I can make no warranty. People get things wrong, and they lie. It’s the way people are. I cannot fact check the hundreds of comments we receive each day. It’s up to other commenters to continue the debate, showing the errant commenter why he is wrong and citing evidence to show it.

There are financial reasons for wanting a large number of commenters as well.
I won’t get into that because it’s not really a factor in the philosophy I’ve laid out here.

In summary, the Web is not the newspaper. People interact with the two mediums in different ways, and users of both the print edition and the website have different expectations for what each product will offer. Online, one expectation is the ability to comment on articles pseudonymously.

I think that feature allows readers freer expression than would binding them to their real names, and while individual comments may be awful to read, I think the entire enterprise is worthwhile.

12 Replies to “Why we allow anonymous comments”

  1. Mr Becker, I disagree. Readers of the web and readers of the print want the same thing: objective and timely news and information. You allow comments on the web as the vile comments drive repeat visits, and more ad impressions, thus more money to your employer. To say anything else is misleading. 
    The only difference readers expect between the web and the print version is in timeliness. I read the web version as I can get the news earlier and process the info faster. The print version is simply too hard to get and carry around in my lifestyle. With your company I suffer less news and less content because of my desire to carry around less stuff. But don’t try and tell me the comments and letters to the editors are different because that is what people expect, it is different because if you print it you can be held liable for it, and if it is a blog style comment you can profit from it, simple as that. In the end money is your motivator.

    1. Welcome to the comments. Thank you for calling me a liar with your first anonymous post.

      As I said in my response to the reader above, there are financial reasons for allowing anonymous and pseudonymous comments — you’re right.

      However the pennies made from the slight statistical dent our commenters make in our website traffic are secondary to the philosophy I laid out in my email to the reader.

  2. Wrong. The internet is nothing but a tabloid and should be treated as such. Anyone can share an opinion, no matter how ignorant or asinine it may be. Anything read online that does not come from a credible source, or at least a traceable source, should be used to supplement your own research or just taken as entertainment value- nothing more. Online blogs and comments are 21st century bathroom graffiti and should be  treated accordingly.

  3. Thank you for your openness, Mr. Becker. You mentioned the need to express oneself without fear of repercussion or punishment. You can’t imagine the reality. I know of at least two online commenters who post their real names and degrade and snipe at readers, calling them most names in books. But it’s not they whom I fear, rather it is their henchmen–those ring-led individuals whom are easily swayed by vitriolous comments; the ones who lurk in barrooms and vent rage aided by alcohol–whom I wish to avoid. And your online discussion reveals not only the true colors out there, but the numbers as well. It gives me an idea of what we’re up against. If only their true identities were exposed, it would reveal a lot of self-incrimination! I remember back in the ’70’s when people commented, “Lazer beam on your window?” in reference to the FBI. Now we have the internet. It exposed Taliban info. The FBI scrutinizing your local discussion? Hmmm.

  4. Profanity can be removed by smart filters( to some degree). Rudeness is more subjective. Some people confuse direct with rude.

  5. only idiots use facebook.  obviously you don’t know the history of facebook and that it was started as a ….book for harvard students.  didn’t have nothing to do with social connections beyond sex.

    1.  Yes, and the United States was started as a slave-owning nation. Does that mean we condemn it for all time because of something it was when it was just getting started?

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