Monday, December 5, 2011

The Anonymity Debate, Part II: In Favor

So first of all, wow.

I was hoping for some feedback but I was not prepared for the flood of opinions that followed. Please excuse the silence of the past few days as I wanted to process it all. (And I had that pesky job thing I had to do).

Any way, lot's of good comments and I thought given the amount of time everyone devoted to them, that I would do two posts: one making the case in favor of anonymous comments; and one against; in both cases using the arguments presented by our readers.

But first, a few admissions:

1) In the interests of transparency, I will tell you years ago, when The Mercury's web site was first established, I dabbled for a brief time making anonymous comments on the site myself, but never on local matters on which I would be reporting, only on national news (he added hurriedly).

That was my rationalization anyway.

However, as much as I enjoyed crossing swords with other posters, I came to realize not only was it inappropriate for me as a reporter to be doing this, I was a little alarmed at the things I seemed willing to say under protection of anonymity.

So I went cold turkey. And, I've been riding a high horse on the subject every since. So yes, I have sinned and, like the reformed smoker, can be the most insufferable person in the room on the need to reform.

2) I entered this discussion firmly convinced that anonymity had to go on our web site, but some of the points made by you all gave me pause.

That said, I have, to the best of my ability, gathered together all the comments from readers that favored keeping comments anonymous, and they will be posted at the end of this blog in one document as the first comment, so you can review the source material as you please. (If I missed one, I apologize in advance, please send it on to me and I will try to add it.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, most in favor of anonymous commenting on the Web site, expressed that view in anonymous comments on the Web site. Those against, for the most part, did so on Facebook, presumably under their real names. We'll hear from this second group in the subsequent post.

I've tried to organize the different schools of thought here. As I saw them, they broke down primarily into issues of political philosophy, motivation and method.

Without further ado, let us examine the case for anonymity, as argued largely by our readers:

Issue 1: Censorship

Perhaps the quickest way to get a journalist's attention is to raise the specter of "censorship;" and several folks wasted no time in doing so.

Meriam-Webster (at least the on-line version; remember, "Digital First") defines censoring as: "to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable <censor the news>; also : to suppress or delete as objectionable <censor out indecent passages>."

 Let's face it, we're already doing that on our web site. Those of us with the authority to delete "objectionable" comments, do so.

But I think our posters meant that requiring names would "discourage dissent," and I think this is a valid point.

Alan Jensen-Sellers wrote: " As much as I loathe the often vile comments made by anonymous Internet posters, I also believe that the principle of being able remain anonymous when being critical of government, industry, or anyone, really is essential to avoid stifling dissent. Journalists have gone to jail to protect anonymous sources, the right to dissent without retaliation has been bought and paid for with millions of lives, (that debt is still being paid by many) So for that reason I believe that despite the Internet sandbox being a lot more like a cat box, the ability to comment anonymously should be retained. I will say those posters that command my highest respect and who hold the greatest credibility to me are those willing to step out from behind the curtain and accept the responsibility for what they post."

Poster JohnP told me"Remember why you became a reporter and why we live in the best country in the world, " He added: "Our country is becoming a society where we can no longer speak our opinions because it might offend someone. Dictatorship at the national and local levels is what the outcome will be if censorship increases. I am surprised a reporter would desire censorship without outside pressure."

I don't know if I know JohnP, but he clearly does not know I became a reporter because I liked the TV show "Lou Grant." Also, know JohnP the only pressure is internal, our desire to clean up what Mr. Jensen-Sellers has described as "the cat box."

Seriously though, from a philosophical view, this perspective cannot and should not be ignored.

Part of the problem, as a friend of mine pointed out when we were discussing this, is that the Internet has a strong, fiercely defended tradition of being largely anonymous. It is newspapers which are new to the Internet, not the other way around, and the conflict seems to arise from us trying impose newspaper standards to the Internet.
Issue 2: Political Viewpoint

Some posters apparently suspect we are looking at removing anonymity in order to further a political agenda. I find this argument the most easily dispelled, largely because our readers made the point themselves.

Consider: Poster J Stew noted: "Some very hateful comments are allowed while other milder opinions are not. Maybe it's just me but it seems right leaning posters are given far more leeway then left leaning ones."

Almost exactly an hour later, truthsayer told us fear was among our motivations for considering this change: "This fear comes from the difference in philosophies between the media and the average American. The media is overwhelmingly liberal and passive in it's approach to the country and the world, the average American is relatively conservative and aggressive. The media is frightened by what Americans are saying and thinking, because it is very different from what those in the media believe. Yet, these angry and sometimes violent and racist Americans, are the consumers of the media's product. Rather than give up on it's liberal mindset, and try to reflect the American public more accurately, the media now looks to suppress the voice it has given Americans through online comments of it's news stories."
So it would seem we favor right-leaning comments, but have a left-leaning viewpoint and are trying to suppress right-leaning comments. I suspect we could argue this one all year and never reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Rest assured, dear readers, there is no vast right-wing or left-wing agenda here, just us muddling our way through, trying to find the best way to encourage meaningful dialog. ("Meaningful" being in the eye of the beholder, of course, makes this goal nigh impossible to achieve.)

Issue 3: Stop Being Mean to Me

Also falling into the "motivation" category is the suspicion by some readers that I am pushing this because people are mean to me and to others.

To an extent, this is true. At least as it relates to others.

There is a lot of meanness and nastiness among our commenters (we call it being "snarky" in the newsroom). This is an effort to promote civility, pure and simple. But it is not a personal motivation, despite what Keith Kachel suspects.

"And this whole push for real names sounds like it is stemming from when Evan got called out for what someone took as being biased on his reporting of the occupy crap or whatever he was a member of," he wrote on Facebook."If getting called out on the carpet has you pushed that far into a corner , perhaps its time to grow some thicker skin or choose another profession or just suck it up. People ARE going to call bullsh*t or challenge you on subjects."

I don't blame him for reaching this conclusion. Unless he has spent a lot of time reading two of Pottstown's other blogs (I don't want to make the mistake of characterizing them with any potentially mis-interpreted adjectives) he has no way of knowing I have been pushing this rock for more than a year, long before Occupy came to Pottstown.

(Of note: One of those blogs, The Pulse, run by Code Blue, recently announced they will no longer allow anonymous comments. So the experiment is already in motion.)

FYI, Keith, I've been a journalist for 25 years now. I've had my front door window broken once (second attempt failed), anonymous letter campaigns in Upper Pottsgrove urge people to "visit" my house on election night, and a near constant stream of anonymous comments questioning everything from my motives, to my affiliations, to my taste in ties.

My skin may be pasty and a little wrinkled, but it's plenty thick.

This is about trying to get out of the endless, mucky rut that anonymous comments seems to help confine Pottstown to, and move forward, not trying to reduce my therapist bill.

As the ever-sensitive armymedic put it: "People need to grow some thicker skin. News flash, the world isn't always filled with hugs and Care Bear stares."

Issue 4: Protection from Retribution

This may be, in my view, one of the best arguments for anonymity, the idea that something just won't be made known (or expressed) if people have to fear retribution as a result of expressing it, either from an employer or one of the many unstable people out there who think comments on The Mercury web site are reason enough to arrange or threaten violence. (In fact, that was ultimately why we had to start monitoring comments in the first place.)

Here are some other comments in the same vein:
-- Q wrote on Dec 1, 2011 5:03 AM:" Anonymous comments allow people to truly say what they feel without fear that their boss or neighbor may not agree with them . Our freedom of speech is impaired by our PC society. I appreciate having an outlet."

--WMSPT11 wrote on Nov 30, 2011 5:25 PM:
" One of the problems I have with giving your name is that every nut in pa. will know who you are. I tell people I know my opinions because I know them and even if they disagree with me I know they will not harass me."

And at this point, I have to tip my hat to one of our most, shall we say "consistent?" posters, the relentless "goodmom."

For even though she threatens legal action with almost every post, she made some good points when she wrote this: "Let's review a couple of comments from anonymous commenters that would have never been known. Bobst violating his contract by living further than 5 miles; Headlines in the Mercury stating landlords owe $700,000 in unpaid bills when the top offenders were businesses; Palladino Jr. and how many times it took him to pass his exam; The REAL real estate situation NOT the comments from Bobst saying everything is steady; Real estate assessment and the real issue with declining prices on, and on and on," she wrote.

True, we offer that ability at other locations at the site, but posting them publicly does put The Mercury on the spot and hold us accountable for what we do and do not act on.

Issue 6: The Method

Several posters concerned themselves less with the ethos of anonymity, than with our goal of improved civility and as such, suggested methods for making that happen.

Most extensive of these is a fellow who goes by the name of "Doughboy."

His very extensive and thoughtful post made the point that: "taking the approach of cutting off what makes the Internet the Internet is wrong. What I mean by that is people like approaching it their own way, some like real name and some like to build an online identity."
He said the best methods of ensuring civility include having other posters rebuke obnoxious posters and "back them down."

Also, a combination of rewarding good comments by "featuring" those we like and allowing people to vote on which comments should be featured (or even allowed) is technically possible and used on other sites.
Doughboy also shared these sobering observations: "Understand that when you put an opinion on the net and let people comment on it there are going to be all types who chime in. You are guaranteed these voices:

1) Trolls - People who want to get attention any way they can by the cheapest methods they can.

2) Anti-Trolls - People who fight said trolls.

3) Innocents - People who get caught in between the Troll and Anti-Trolls.

4) Thinkers - They respond well thought out responses.

5) Haters - They just hate the subject and want to rip on it.

And on and on and on....

Another interesting approach was announced last week by The New York Times.

They will soon have a feature in which "trusted" commenters, those who have never had their posts banned, will have their comments go up in real time. Those who have had to have comments removed in the past, will go into the bin awaiting approval from a moderator.

For those who did not read the JRC discussion we had last week, other suggestions include putting anonymous posts at the bottom of the thread, and elevating those which come with a name attached.

Several other posters suggested a return to our past, saying we should remove monitoring all together, in order to encourage a faster and more free dialog, and only remove comments (once already posted) about which we receive complaints.

Thanks for the input folks.
Lamb Chop, who considers our current arrangement inferior to those at our sister JRC papers in Chester and Delaware County " a joke," wrote: "The other newspapers I mentioned respect their readers views and those newspapers get a lot more feedback from readers." 

To be sure, it's The Mercury's site and we can operate it as we see fit (or as our corporate owners allow us to see fit), but we're trying to find a balance that promotes civility, freedom of freedom of expression, thoughtfulness and sure, a little irreverent behavior.

Perhaps ultimately, we will conclude that those goals are incompatible.

Perhaps ultimately, we will have to chose from among them.

But whatever we decide to do, if anything, it will have been done with input from our readers and for that I thank you. Everyone who commented has certainly provided much food for thought.

Next post: Part III: In Opposition to Anonymity.


1 comment:

  1. It would appear I lied to you.

    I cannot post those comments here because I have limited space and they are too long.

    Well, I tried.