Last summer, someone with the moniker “lawmiss” posted a comment on the website of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Lawmiss wrote something nasty about a relative of a Plain Dealer reporter. The more than 80 comments posted under the lawmiss moniker since 2007 covered a wide range of Ohio and national current events, and showed a familiarity with the inner workings of the Cuyahoga County government and Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold’s courtroom, in particular.
Many of the most recent comments involved legal issues in three high-profile criminal cases before her, and Judge Safford hears some very high-profile cases, even capitol cases. But oddly, it was the comment about the reporter which prompted the newspaper to investigate the source of the posting. It turns out that the newspaper was able to trace the lawmiss username to the personal AOL account of Cleveland judge. The Plain Dealer removed the comment for violating cleveland.com’s community rules, which do not allow personal attacks.
Anyway, it seems uncertain whether the judge posted the comments—she claims it was her 23 year old daughter. Either way, the judge (who appears to be a bit of a loose cannon) is under investigation for ethics violations. Saffold’s daughter declined to talk about the specifics of her postings. “I don’t think the content of my posts is necessarily pertinent,” she said. “I know all of the people I spoke about . . . I don’t see why I owe any explanations about my blogging activities.”
But the story of Judge Safford and the Plain dealer is just the background to a larger issue that is now being studied by news sites—that of the anonymity of posters.
News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments
When the Cleveland Plain dealer acknowledged that it had broken with the tradition of allowing commenters to hide behind screen names, it broke a kind of fourth wall, and broke the barrier of anonymity. It may not be guaranteed. The editor of The Plain Dealer 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.” And the fact that it turned out to be a judge made that story more important than merely the anonymity of their posters.
When news sites first went on line, they didn’t all allow comments. But they soon learned it drew readers and clicks, and, therefore, advertisers. They also used the rationalization that now anyone could weigh in and remain anonymous. A virtual Town Hall, if you will. The policy of allowing anonymous posts is now coming under attack, and journalists are questioning whether anonymity should be a given on news sites.
Leonard Pitts Jr., a Miami Herald columnist, wrote 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.”
We’ve all been there—The Huffington Post. And we all use avatars and monikers whenever we posted there or elsewhere. There is legitimate value in letting people express opinions that may get them in trouble at work or offend their neighbors. And there is the issue of identity theft and plain old privacy too.
“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,” a dean at Columbia’s journalism school said. “People who might have something useful to say are less willing to participate in boards where the tomatoes are being thrown.”
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. I always use my real name when I comment on the NYT’s site and I really like their feature of opting to see other comments ranked most popular by other Times readers. It weeds out the trolls very effectively, as they are at the bottom of the rankings. The Times also has someone review every comment before it goes online, to weed out personal attacks and bigoted comments. That is too expensive for most news sites, especially ones with a huge readership.
There is still the problem of those paid trolls though. Sites may have to guard against a concerted campaign by a small group of people voting one way and skewing the results. The Wall Street Journal’s site gives readers the option of deciding to only see comments by WSJ’s subscribers, on the theory that the most dedicated readers might make for a more serious conversation. Since I rarely visit the WSJ, I don’t know if that is the case.
According to The New York Times, Puff Ho will be announcing changes to their comments policy, including ranking commenters based in part on how well other readers know and trust their writing. The more fans, the higher the reliability is the rationale. That means Hume Skeptic will now be the featured commenter on every thread, I suppose. He’s over 2000 fans now and actually, that’s fine with me.
“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. “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.” I disagree. People still want to be able to state their opinions without fear of retaliation from their bosses. They still worry about cyber stalking. They still want to be able to speak their mind without their friends knowing exactly how radical they may be.
“There is a younger generation that doesn’t feel the same need for privacy,” Huffington said. “Many people, when you give them other choices, they choose not to be anonymous.” She’s probably correct in that assessment—Facebook and Twitter seem to confirm that. But that’s because most young people have no idea about the dangers that lurk on the internet—they post all kinds of personal information. Having two teenage daughters, I can attest to their scary naiveté.
Some news sites moderate comments after they are posted, but again, they do not have the resources to do serious review. And then there is always banning. Besides, if I were forced to provide my name, I would probably use a fake name. My email address wouldn’t contain my name either, so I don’t think that’s the answer. When you get right down to it, you either moderate or allow everyone to post—until they become so offensive they are banned. It’s like driving—lots of people have no business being on the road and should have their licenses taken away. Same with posting.