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.
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.