Published: April 11, 2010
From the start, Internet users have taken for granted that the territory was both a free-for-all and a digital disguise, allowing them to revel in their power to address the world while keeping their identities concealed.
A New Yorker cartoon from 1993, during the Web’s infancy, with one mutt saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” became an emblem of that freedom. For years, it was the magazine’s most reproduced cartoon.
When news sites, after years of hanging back, embraced the idea of allowing readers to post comments, the near-universal assumption was that anyone could weigh in and remain anonymous. But now, that idea is under attack from several directions, and journalists, more than ever, are questioning whether anonymity should be a given on news sites.
The Washington Post plans to revise its comments policy over the next several months, and one of the ideas under consideration is to give greater prominence to commenters using real names.
The New York Times, The Post and many other papers have moved in stages toward requiring that people register before posting comments, providing some information about themselves that is not shown onscreen.
The Huffington Post soon will announce changes, including ranking commenters based in part on how well other readers know and trust their writing.
“Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” said Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post. “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”
The Plain Dealer of Cleveland recently discovered that anonymous comments on its site, disparaging a local lawyer, were made using the e-mail address of a judge who was presiding over some of that lawyer’s cases.
That kind of proxy has been documented before; what was more unusual was that The Plain Dealer exposed the connection in an article. The judge, Shirley Strickland Saffold, denied sending the messages — her daughter took responsibility for some of them. And last week, the judge sued The Plain Dealer, claiming it had violated her privacy.
The paper acknowledged that it had broken with the tradition of allowing commenters to hide behind screen names, but it served notice that anonymity was a habit, not a guarantee. Susan Goldberg, The Plain Dealer’s editor, declined to comment for this article. But in an interview she gave to her own newspaper, she said that perhaps the paper should not have investigated the identity of the person who posted the comments, “but once we did, I don’t know how you can pretend you don’t know that information.”
Some prominent journalists weighed in on the episode, calling it evidence that news sites should do away with anonymous comments. Leonard Pitts Jr., a Miami Herald columnist, wrote recently that anonymity has made comment streams “havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.”
No one doubts that there is a legitimate value in letting people express opinions that may get them in trouble at work, or may even offend their neighbors, without having to give their names, said William Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s journalism school.
“But a lot of comment boards turn into the equivalent of a barroom brawl, with most of the participants having blood-alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher,” he said. “People who might have something useful to say are less willing to participate in boards where the tomatoes are being thrown.”
He said news organizations were willing to reconsider anonymity in part because comment pages brought in little revenue; advertisers generally do not like to buy space next to opinions, especially incendiary ones.
The debate over anonymity is entwined with the question of giving more weight to comments from some readers than others, based in part on how highly other readers regard them. Some sites already use a version of this approach; Wikipedia users can earn increasing editing rights by gaining the trust of other editors, and when reviews are posted on Amazon.com, those displayed most prominently are those that readers have voted “most helpful” — and they are often written under real names.
Hal Straus, interactivity editor of The Washington Post, said, “We want to be able to establish user tiers, and display variations based on those tiers.” The system is still being planned, but he says it is likely that readers will be asked to rate comments, and that people’s comments will be ranked in part based on the trust those users have earned from other readers — an approach much like the one The Huffington Post is set to adopt. Another criterion could be whether they use their real names.
But experience has shown that when users help rank things online, sites may have to guard against a concerted campaign by a small group of people voting one way and skewing the results.
A popular feature on The Wall Street Journal’s site lets readers decide whether they want to see only those comments posted by subscribers, on the theory that the most dedicated readers might make for a more serious conversation.
A few news organizations, including The Times, have someone review every comment before it goes online, to weed out personal attacks and bigoted comments. Some sites and prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, simply do not allow comments.
Some news sites review comments after they are posted, but most say they do not have the resources to do routine policing. Many sites allow readers to flag objectionable comments for removal, and make some effort to block comments from people who have repeatedly violated the site’s standards.
If commenters were asked to provide their real names for display online, some would no doubt give false identities, and verifying them would be too labor-intensive to be realistic. But news executives say that merely making the demand for a name and an e-mail address would weed out much of the most offensive commentary.
Several industry executives cited a more fundamental force working in favor of identifying commenters. Through blogging and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, millions of people have grown accustomed to posting their opinions — to say nothing of personal details — with their names attached, for all to see. Adapting the Facebook model, some news sites allow readers to post a picture along with a comment, another step away from anonymity.
“There is a younger generation that doesn’t feel the same need for privacy,” Ms. Huffington said. “Many people, when you give them other choices, they choose not to be anonymous.”