Are anonymous user comments useful? Do they further intelligent discussion? Do they allow people to say what they really feel from behind a veil of secrecy? Anonymous user comments are almost seen as a basic right by some — that the Internet should be a forum that provides the ability for anyone to say what is really on their mind without fear of judgment.
This morning CNN ran an article about how some online news sites are trying to reign in anonymous comments because they often veer into bigoted, spiteful and hate-filled rants such as in the example below from the Buffalo News. The following comment was left by an anonymous user in response to a story about a local shooting:
“I hate what you people, and by that I mean the blacks, are doing to this city. Each area you move too [sic] quickly becomes over run [sic] with crime, loud music [at] all hours, adults swearing and screaming at kids, children playing in the street, porches with beer and garbage thrown all around.”
Now, some newspapers are going to extraordinary lengths to require those who wish to post comments to reveal their true identity, at least to the paper itself. The Buffalo News is asking everyone to register with their real name, address and phone number. Editors may even call to verify their information. The Sun Chronicle in Massachusetts is requiring even more information — including a credit card number. Registrants are charged a one-time fee of 99 cents to activate their account. The website then displays their real name and city (as listed on their credit card statement) beside their comments. So far only 22 people have signed up.
To be clear, in most cases anonymous comments aren’t in the least bit useful. That isn’t to say anonymous user commenting shouldn’t exist. Those who comment on a story anonymously aren’t going to change anyone’s mind with their insightful thoughts left below a blog post. Why? Most intelligent users marginalize and discard anonymous comments. In fact, I think the psychological purpose driving one to leave an offensive or hateful comment isn’t often rooted in a desire to change anyone else’s mind. It is about their desire to have a personal forum for themselves. A safe place for them to get the things they can’t say in public off their chest — in other words it is a function which only gratifies themselves, not others.
Honestly, I don’t believe it’s a question of free speech either. I’m an ardent believer in free speech in almost all circumstances, including some of the most extreme. Should a vile hate group be allowed to run a website or hold an event? Of course. Should they be allowed to do it anonymously? Of course not. The first amendment of the constitution does not call for free anonymous speech.
The pro side for anonymous commenting usually comes down the point that some may feel that unless an anonymous venue is offered then certain ideas and truths will never see the light of day. I think this may have been true even as little as five years ago. But now the Internet has provided an anonymous venue for all. I think that newspapers and blogs have the right and responsibility to lead discussions, based on their own principles. After all, a blog’s comment section is part of their venue. Let everyone have their own.
Newspapers or blogs who require a credit card number, social security number or a personal phone call to set up an account are acting foolishly and self destructively. Those types of measures are set up by those who don’t understand the dynamic of the Internet. Creating strict barriers to communication will only cause fewer people to become involved. Social involvement is a vital component of any successful online presence.
So what can be done? The simplest thing is to create a written policy that potential commentators must agree to before signing up. The agreement should list out the types of offensive or hateful comments that will be removed. Users must have a valid e-mail address and IP addresses should be recorded. That allows users to still post anonymously but gives the newspaper or blog the ability to moderate comments. Want to go a step further? Use Facebook Connect to handle your login process. While someone can set up a fake account on Facebook it’s much harder to make it seem real. It’s a free way for you and your users to log in without setting up a whole new account and a great way to shine some friendly bright sunlight on the process.