Why Banning Anonymous Comments is Bad for Postmedia and Bad for Society

Last night I discovered that my local newspaper – the Vancouver Sun – was going to require users log in with Facebook to comment. It turns out that this will be true of all Postmedia newspapers.

I’m stunned that a newspaper ownership would make such a move. Even more so that editors and journalists would support it. We should all be disappointed when the fourth estate is unable to recognize it is dis-empowering those who are most marginalized. Especially when there are better alternatives at ones disposal. (For those interested in this I also recommend reading Mathew Ingram’s post, Anonymity Has Value, In Comments and Elsewhere from over a year ago.)

So what’s wrong with forcing users to sign in via Facebook to comment?

First, you have to be pretty privileged to believe that forcing people to use their real names will improve comments. Yes, there are a lot of people who use anonymity to troll or say stupid things, but there are also many people who – for very legitimate reasons – don’t want to use their real name.

What supporters of banning anonymity are saying is not just that they oppose trolls (I do too!) but that, for the sake of “accountability” we must also know the name of recovering sexual abuse victim who wants to share their personal perspective on a story in the comments. Or that we (and thus also their boss) should get to know the name of an employee who wants to share information about illegal or unethical practices they have seen at their work in a comment. It also means that a comment you make, ten years hence, can be saved on a newspapers website, traced back to your Facebook account and so used by a prospective employer to decide if you should get a job.

What ending anonymity is really about is power. Now, those who can comment will (even more so) be disproportionately those who have the income and social security to know they can voice their concern in public, safely. So I’m confident that this move will reduce trolls – but it will also snuff out the voices of those who are most marginalized. And journalists clearly understand the power dynamics of our society and the important role anonymity plays in balancing them  this is why they use anonymous sources to get scoops and dig up stories. So how newspapers as an institution, and journalists as a profession see narrowing the opportunity for those most marginalized to challenge power and authority in the comments section as being consistent with their mission, I cannot explain.

There are, of course, far better ways of handling comments. The CBC does a quite decent job of letting people vote up and down comments – this means I rarely see the worst trolls and many thoughtful comments rise to the top. The Globe does an adequate job at this as well. Mechanisms such as these are far less draconian the “outlawing” anonymity and preserve room for those most impacted or marginalized.

But let me go further. Journalists and editors often complain about the comments section as being wild. Well how often to they take even the tiniest bit of energy to engage their commentators? There are plenty of sites that allow anonymous comments with fantastic results – see flickr or reddit – but this is because those sites invested in creating norms and engaging their users. When has a journalist or commentator in this country ever decided to invest themselves in engaging their readers and commenters on a regular and ongoing basis in the comments section? While I’m sure there are important exceptions, by and large the answer is almost never. Indeed, I’m always stunned by the number of journalists and commentators I talk to who more or less hold much of their audience in contempt – seeing them as wild. No wonder the comment section has run amok – we can pretend otherwise but the commenters know you don’t respect them. If newspapers are not happy with their comment sections, they really have no one to blame but themselves. This is after all, the community they created, the norms they fostered, the result of investments that they made. Shluffing it all off to Facebook both runs counter to their mission but is also a shirking of responsibility (and business opportunity) of the highest order.

Of course, handing the problem to Facebook won’t solve it either. It was suggested, at last count, that over 80 million facebook accounts are fake. Expect that number to go up. But of course, the people who will be most happy to create that fake account are going to be the trolls who want to use it regularly, not the lone commentator who has an important perspective about a story but doesn’t want to tell the world who they are out of fear of social stigma or worse.

What’s worse, Postmedia has now essentially farmed its privacy policy out to Facebook. Presently that means that, in theory, you can’t be anonymous. But what will it mean in the future? Postmedia can’t tell you. They can’t even influence it.

For an organization managing discussions as sensitive as newspapers do – that is a pretty shocking stance to take. Who knows what future decisions about privacy Facebook is going to make. But here’s what I do know, I trusted the National Post a hell of a lot more to manage my comments and identity than I do Facebook because their missions are totally different. In the end, this could be bad not just for comments, but for Postmedia. Many people are already pretty uncomfortable with Facebook’s policies. I expect more will become so. Even if they don’t comment, I suspect readers will be drawn to sites that engage them more effectively – a newspapers that has outsourced its engagement to Facebook will probably lose out.

I get that Postmedia believes its job of managing comments will become easier because it has outsourced identity management to Facebook – but it has come at a real cost, one that I think is unacceptable for a newspaper. In the end, I think the quality of engagement and of discussion at Postmedia will suffer. That will be bad for it, but it will also be bad for society in general.

And that is sad news for all of us.

Added @ 9:27am PST. Note: Some Postmedia journalists want to make clear that this decision was a corporate one, not theirs.

20 thoughts on “Why Banning Anonymous Comments is Bad for Postmedia and Bad for Society

  1. BlissfullyAnonymous

    Wow, I cannot believe the explosion in the amount of websites that demand you use Facebook to comment, enter contests etc. over the last year or so. When are people going to wake up? I don’t have Facebook, and these ridiculous demands will ensure I will NEVER sign up for it.

  2. Guest

    I’ve never really thought about the lack of journalist’s comment contributions within their articles and articles of their publisher. But what a difference this would make! Any ideas how this situation could be improved?

  3. rww

    I’m not so upset about the lack of anonymous posting, I can see both sides of that argument. Newspapers used to verify readers identities before publishing letters to the editor. but I resent them trying to force me to get an account with that evil social marketing machine that is Facebook (Farcebook) to comment in their newspapers.

  4. Kirsten Smith

    Hi Dave. I tweeted on behalf of Postmedia News and I wasn’t expressing an opinion one way or another on Facebook commenting. I was indicating that @Postmedianews is not the Twitter handle to complain to. We are the Ottawa based news bureau, not the corporate Twitter feed. To  reach corporate please use @postmedianet in your tweets.

  5. Stephen Downes

    The problem is less the elimination of anonymous comments (as you suggest, there are many fake Facebook accounts) and more the way Postmedia is selling its community as a commodity to Facebook. 

  6. Andrew

    The best example I’ve seen in Canadian media of a comments section is Maclean’s (running Disqus, as you have here). There are regular commentators who are using pseudonyms and fake identities, but who nevertheless are known in the community both as trolls and as quality commenters (sometimes both, debating on where you fall on the political spectrum). And the journalists/writers actively engage not only in their own stories, but in each other’s stories, as well. Really curious if this is a mandated/encouraged thing, or if it is simply happenstance.

  7. editor_tricitynews

    David: You raise a number of interesting points. Allow me to offer my perspective as a newspaper editor whose company switched from Disqus to Facebook commenting late last year. We saw a complete shift in commenting from a small number of repeat commenters, many of whom contributed little to the discussion (one repeatedly posted links to a YouTube page showing the Beatles performing Twist and Shout despite being repeatedly asked to stay on topic), to a wider variety of commenters and a higher quality of comments that managed to stay on topic. So while I share some of your concerns regarding the marginalized not wanting to engage and open up in public, my experience has been largely positive — and those people weren’t commenting before anyway, preferring to email directly, fill out an online form or calling.
    Further, as a regular reader of the Vancouver Sun online, it’s my observation that the clear majority of the comments add little to the news “conversation” on that site. Perhaps there is a better way, as you suggest, but that goes up against the ever dwindling resources of newspapers in a media marketplace — North America-wide — where people don’t seem to want to pay for journalism.
    Finally, you mention the Globe & Mail. I’m a fan and reader of the Globe but even the demographics suggested by its approach and advertising don’t protect it from uninspired commenting. Here’s a single recent example, and I picked it because I covered the original story almost 17 years ago. Check out the link (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/man-who-murdered-his-estranged-wife-and-her-parents-dies-in-bc-jail/article4487105/) and read the comments. I’m not sure any one of them contributes anything.

    1. David Eaves

      Editor, thank you for the comment.

      Yes, I called the Globe and Mails’ commenting mechanism “adequate.” Thus finding an anecdotal example of poor commenting isn’t going to be an insurmountable hurdle. My point however, was that there are journalists and newspapers (and many other sites) that have managed to enable decent or even great commenting without resorting to the constraints of using their Facebook identity. I’ve no doubt that Facebook makes it easier – that was not my point – my point is that it comes at a significant cost around who can comment and that others have found alternatives that better balance commenting with identity.

  8. Alex Blonski

    Hey David,

    I can see where you’re coming from, but there are some
    specific circumstances that led us to add the Facebook commenting
    platform. Also, there are a few issues you raised in your piece I feel
    need clarification.

    – Our readers and editorial staff were
    diluted with spam and fake accounts. During the period we had our
    previous commenting platform, almost 50% of our comments contained spam
    or obscene/racist content. There was lots of good discussion;
    unfortunately it was buried under mountains of garbage.
    – Our
    reporters and editors can and did try to participate in conversations.
    Unfortunately there was nothing preventing users from labeling
    themselves as our staff since they could create any identity they
    – Most companies are liable for any content that appears on
    their site, even if they did not create that content ourselves. As a
    result most news websites turn off comments on stories involving crime.
    The story about abuse victims or  the story about a court case involving a whistle-blower wouldn’t have comments turned on, Facebook or no Facebook.
    – We still
    value anonymity. We’re journalists! We always try to protect anonymous
    sources. We accept letters/emails anonymously and we have experimented
    with citizen journalism platforms that allow anonymous reporting by our
    public. Do comments also have to be an avenue to collect these insights?

    – This isn’t our first implementation of Facebook commenting on our newspaper sites. The Windsor Star rolled out Facebook commenting in May, and canada.com rolled it our July 1st. The results were great! Less time moderating and more time to create stories that address issues, including some of the ones you raise above.- 
    Even Disqus, the commenting platform you’ve implemented on your blog (and which I’m a big fan of btw) requires me to approve access to data from an application in order to use it.  Unless the commenting system is simply an open text box with an open username field, some data is going to be stored about the user. Do I wish there was a platform that allowed users to be anonymous while keeping conversation civil? Of course I do! Unfortunately the two concepts don’t align right now. If there’s a platform or solution that addresses both these issues, I’d sure love to hear it!

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  10. Ron

    Yahoo has the best commenting and best discussions. You can vote on comments and their system pings you when someone replies to your comment. Really slick, really well done. Old-school newspaper sites can’t even come close in comparison no matter what silly tact they take.

  11. Ron

    Yahoo has the best commenting and best discussions. You can vote on comments and their system pings you when someone replies to your comment. Really slick, really well done. Old-school newspaper sites can’t even come close in comparison no matter what silly tact they take.

  12. Ron

    Yahoo has the best commenting and best discussions. You can vote on comments and their system pings you when someone replies to your comment. Really slick, really well done. Old-school newspaper sites can’t even come close in comparison no matter what silly tact they take.

  13. Alex Blonski

    Ron, both functions you mention are part of Facebook commenting. You get notifications of replies and can vote comments up. At this point those functions are pretty much table stakes for any modern commenting platform.

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    1. Anonymous

      It is great!
      There is no good reason for me to leave my full name on this and other webpages I comment on. I am hesitant to comment using facebook on an Edmonton Journal article about an oil spill because it might turn into “family dinner,” potentially viewable by my family, friends and acquaintances (my facebook contacts) if I “post to facebook” when commenting. Even if I don’t “post to facebook” I wouldn’t want all my comments viewable by a google search of my name! If you have an “online persona” (like journalists and bloggers have etc), then publishing your full name with your opinion makes sense, but it’s not desirable for everyone.

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