WTF? Friday: News Sites Allowing Anonymous Commenters

I’m pretty angry this morning, so this is not your typical lighthearted Friday post. I was going to do a WTF? Friday video but I didn’t think anyone wanted to see no sleep, mad face Mj, so this is going to have to do.

Here’s what has me fired up: news organizations allowing visitors to their sites to leave anonymous comments. Think about it: the subjects of the news are called out by name; the reporters of the news are certainly not anonymous, but in some cases, newspapers, television stations and other news sources allow comments from people not required to enter their name (and an unpublished e-mail address).

I understand why it’s been handled this way; the thinking is that this fosters more open conversation and indeed, it often does stir the pot successfully. But what we’ve seen — for years now — is that the anonymity is only license for people to be real assholes.

Case in point: a friend and colleague tragically passed away in May of this year. Her parents have decided, as is well within their legal right, to take legal action in the case. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the story.¬†¬†This unleashed dozens (65 as of this writing) of comments, MANY of them cruel, thoughtless, insensitive, ignorant and downright insulting. What good does this do anyone? When I think about the additional harm to my friend’s parents as they will no doubt see the words people cast in their direction from behind the Post’s comment curtain, it makes me incensed.

The discussion is NOT what it could be, if comments were owned; about tort reform, the tragedy of sudden death or retailer responsibility. No. It is, instead just a forum for trolls, haters and idiots clinging to stereotypes and flinging words they don’t have the balls to sign their names to. We KNOW that when people use their names and when the conversation is joined by those being discussed, that the conversation is elevated; that it becomes useful, healthy discussion and that people are overall, more polite. Why not foster that, instead of hate?

Yes, I am angry.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I challenge you to change your comment policy.

21 Comments

  • KenMueller says:

    I have a real problem with this. I understand that there are those who believe that anonymity allows for a more free expression of opinions. But I’m also of the opinion that if you believe in something, you should stand by it. Obviously you can’t fully beat anonymity because anyone can create a fake persona with a “real” name and email address. That’s the nature of the web. But I find that more often than not, rather than using anonymity to spur on a rich dialogue, most use it to hide so they can spew hate or take aim at others, as in this case.

    This is a tough one, and at least on my blog, I try to encourage people to be themselves.

    If you have something you need to say, back it up by being yourself. Don’t hide.

  • BrianShea says:

    My local papers (Hanover, PA. and a sister paper in York, Pa.) have gone to a Facebook commenting system primarily. You can also use AOL, Hotmail or Yahoo. Sure, people can sign up for a fake account with one of these, but it’s much more cumbersome.

    So far, the overall story commenting has been way down, but most of it was angry screeds and smart-aleck comments so they have removed the biggest problem. Now they just need to figure out a way to generate real dialogue.

  • MollyFulton says:

    @Marijean I hate that you have to deal with this in such a personal, painful way. I completely agree with you. I’ve had to stop reading comments on news sites for that reason. Commenter ignorance is too tempting to get embroiled in. I’ve even passed on sharing links to stories and videos because comments were to obscene and stupid to bear. If you’re going to be a colossal jackass – you have own it.

  • Jen on the Edge says:

    This is why I do not allow anonymous comments on my blog. If you’re going to say it, you should own it.

    In general, I’ve found that comments on news sites tend to be mostly idiotic, rude, or crude, so I never read them.

  • terek55 says:

    I hate anonymous comments, too. When I’m bored at work I will read the news comments on other sites just to wake me up to get angry. We don’t allow anonymous letters to the editor…why are anonymous comments on the site allowed? I hate it. It’s one of the reasons I hate the rant page in the weekly paper, too. There is no validation of the comments and people can be as asshole-ish (yep, new word) as they like.

  • Marijean says:

    @BrianShea I like that and think it’s a great solution. I’d rather have far fewer people engaged in real conversation than many in worthless attacks.

  • Gail Hyder Wiley says:

    I agree completely marijean So much hurt is inflicted and ignorance spewed in anonymous posts. cvillecsp has the opposite problem–@steinarknutsen pointed out this week that we have our blog set to require a password, so no one can comment. We’ll be working on correcting that in WordPress this weekend. Oops!

  • Marijean says:

    @Gail Hyder Wiley Glad to know you’re changing that! Yes, I am a huge fan of open commenting and free speech . . . I just strongly believe in standing behind your words. Thank you for the comment, Gail!

  • Marijean says:

    @terek55 The LTE point is a very good analogy. Thanks Terry!

  • markobrien says:

    If you don’t like people’s comments, don’t read them. They can choose to post, and you can choose to read.

  • EmmaofCEM says:

    I never really thought of it this way, but anonymous commenting is kind of the online equivalent of those morons who protest at private soldier’s funerals and the like. Is ruffling feathers really the best way to accomplish whatever it is you stand for? Isn’t that how children rationalize tantrums?

  • EmmaofCEM says:

    @markobrien Well, easier said than done. Would you really be able to ignore any kind of feedback on something you’d written, or something that was meaningful to you? I understand the sentiment, but curiosity is the driving human gene that keeps our kind innovating.

  • Marijean says:

    @markobrien I agree with @EmmaofCEM . It’s just not that simple, and the business I am in is reputation management so often I’m looking at content directly related to my client’s brand or business. I can’t just tell people not to read the comments.

  • Weatherbird says:

    Hi, Marijean. I’m the bird-in-chief over at the Post-Dispatch, and I saw your tweet about this blog post.

    Your example is one reason why we’re testing Facebook comments on our site right now. We’ve switched two blogs over to Facebook comments: Talk of the Day (stltoday.com/talk) and Editor’s Desk (stltoday.com/editorsdesk), and will soon be adding more sections and blogs to this test.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on our comment system, and if I can help or answer any questions please let me know.

  • Marijean says:

    @Weatherbird Glad to know you’re looking at additional options. Thank you for paying attention, too!

  • ShannonHarrington says:

    Amen!

  • markobrien says:

    Emma and MJ, I agree that it’s not as simple as it sounds. When someone puts work “out there,” however, people see it and are bound to have varying opinions about it. To your hypothetical, Emma, my work actually has been the target of hateful attacks, as have I. Moreover, I’ve been the subject of character attacks on comment sections such as these, some by anonymous posters and others by those who sign their first and last names. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but one that’s a must for any people who thrust themselves into the public vortex in any capacity.

    What difference does the name of a commenter make? If he posted his name next to his comment, does that take away the ignorance or crassness? Not necessarily: Just read some of the language used in several comments to this blog entry. It’s just as divisive as the supposed subject of their criticism. I’ve found that in most cases, it’s the comment and its content that matter most, not the name of the person who said it. While it’s true some people may make anonymous comments in order to hide behind the vail of anonymity, I believe some critics of anonymous comments also rely on that anonymity to use harsher language than they might otherwise. It’s easier to call Mr. Anonymous a “troll” or a “real asshole” or say he’s “spewing” hate than it is to do so about Mark O’Brien or anyone else whose first and last names are present…and get away with it without looking like a hypocrite.

    Three quick final points: Just because one stands by his words doesn’t mean someone else automatically should, too. There are any number of reasons why someone might want to post anonymously, including to be ruder and more hateful. Also, all the St. Louis Post Dispatch (and any other outlet) needs to do is to fully enforce its rules. The paper doesn’t need to change how people access the comments, but it does need to monitor behavior better. If comments violate the rules, then those shouldn’t be added or should be eliminated. The paper should also encourage people to actually report abuse. Finally, what constitutes anonymous? In the St. Louis Post Dispatch story, would velk22 or Chrome count? What about Norm? With regard to these comments here: I have no idea who EmmaofCEM is. Does that mean she’s anonymous? And, as KenMueller wrote, it’s possible someone could come up with a fake name that sounds real. Would we know the difference?

  • markobrien says:

    @EmmaofCEM The Westboro Baptist Church proudly announces its protests at soldiers’ funerals; there’s no anonymity about it. Furthermore, there’s a difference between ruffling feathers and tantrums. Consider the uprisings in Egypt or the American Revolution, each of which began with someone or a group of people disrupting the status quo, flustering those in charge, and in some cases creating a ruckus…or, as you put it, ruffling feathers. Personally, I think it was a successful way of accomplishing what they stood for.

  • markobrien says:

    @EmmaofCEM The Westboro Baptist Church proudly announces its protests at soldiers’ funerals; there’s no anonymity about it. Furthermore, there’s a difference between ruffling feathers and tantrums. Consider the uprisings in Egypt or the American Revolution, each of which began with someone or a group of people disrupting the status quo, flustering those in charge, and in some cases creating a ruckus…or, as you put it, ruffling feathers. Personally, I think it was a successful way of accomplishing what they stood for.

  • lewisnelson says:

    I now have a depressing Friday morning thank to you @Marijean … not only is the loss of your friend and the way she was taken tragic, but those St. Louis Dispatch comments are just senseless, rude, and insensitive. I’m sorry for your loss!

  • lewisnelson says:

    or Saturday morning I meant.