The why and how of a real names policy on comments

If you run a online news site, you should allow users to comment on posts. And if you allow comments, you should require users to register with their real names.

Why?

It starts with basic news ethics: Readers have a right to know who is saying what.

Newspapers long ago stopped allowing anonymous letters to the editor. Ethical editorial page directors go to great lengths to ensure the author of a letter is who he says he is.  There is no small measure of credibility tied to using your real name when expressing an opinion or stating what you believe to be facts.

Newspapers also have established policies on anonymous sources. Setting aside for a minute that some papers don’t follow their own anonymous source policies, the best policies require some verification by a trusted reporter or editor of the true identify of the source, some vetting of the source’s motivation, and ensuring the source is used primarily to provide facts, not opinion.

The argument is at times made that since newspapers allow anonymous sources, online news organizations should allow anonymous comments.  The logic doesn’t follow, however, because anonymous comments come from unvetted sources — there is no examination of their motivations or conflicts of interest, nor any idea if the person is even remotely who he represents himself to be even in anonymity. In most news environments, anonymous comments go live without any verification as to their news value or truthfulness.  No ethical news editor would allow such unfiltered information to flow freely into printed news columns. Why is it OK on the Web?

Real names may not prevent people from spewing misinformation and defamatory bile, but at least if readers trust that the person making such assertions is using a real name, they can judge it accordingly, or fact check the source themselves.

A situation came up recently at Cleveland.com where a judge allegedly/seemingly (she denies it) used a psudonymous name to comment on cases that had come before her court room.  If there had been a real name policy in place and enforced at Cleveland.com, there never would have been an issue about revealing her identity, which clearly the public had a right to know.

Newspapers set themselves up for a horrendous ethical dilemma when they create a situation whereby public officials, who have obvious conflicts of interests, can support their own agenda, or oppose another’s, through anonymous, unfiltered and unvetted commenting. The public, for example, has a right to know if the person pushing cuts to local bus routes is the politician who wrote the legislation or just some well informed citizen.

As another example, if the mayor is promoting a zoning change downtown, and a persistent commenter keeps arguing against it, the mayor has a right to know if that is a future electoral opponent or the local competing developer who stands to lose by the change. And so do the readers.

It is sometimes suggested that rather than require real names, persistent identity should be required, or pseudonyms. 

There are two problems with this suggestion.

First, it doesn’t solve the exceptionally important ethical issue of the readers right to know who is saying what; second, it’s too easy for sock puppets to promote an agenda using multiple identities.

There are some who seem to assume that the whole issue of comments and identity have to do with avoiding racist hate speech, nastiness, vile flame wars and the like.  While a real name policy can help in this regard, that is not the primary reason for requiring real names (again, it’s primarily about ethics).

At The Batavian, we’ve banned two people who we know were using their real names.  People can still be jerks even when their name is attached to their comments.  Real names might tap down some of the vileness, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

But if you have a real name policy — and this is the key point in using identity to police comments — it makes it much harder for the bad actors to re-register under a different name.

In a policy that requires only pseudonymity or persistent identity, if you kick Julie123 off your site on Tuesday, by Thursday, she can be Becky123 and you’re none the wiser.

Which brings us to enforcement of a real names policy.

Frankly, I will not reveal all of my secrets in a public way of how I catch fake names.  I don’t want to educate those who might chose to subvert my policy on The Batavian.  I would be happy to discuss this in detail with any news organization on a non-disclosure basis if requested.

But first and foremost, the vast majority of people who would seek to comment without their real names do so in very obvious ways.  The guy who registered with "Not Me" is obviously faking it.  Even if the person uses a plausible sounding name, such as Richard Montadello, will leave other inconsistencies in his registration to raise suspicion.

I approach a real name policy as a "best effort" practice. If you can get past my radar with your registration and get approved, the next test is your behavior. 

Trollish comments, repeatedly making statements that the average person would find embarrassing to be associated with, will likely mean that further investigation into your identity is required.  When such comments come from a recently registered person, the yellow alert goes to red pretty quickly.

At which point, I check public databases for names that match in the zip code provided. If no match, the user is asked to provide either by fax, e-mail or in person a copy of a picture ID.

But the best police of real identity are other registered users, members of the community.

We had a gentleman who got away with a fake name for about six months.  He claimed to be a small business owner employing 50 people in factory jobs.  For a small business owner in a small local community, his attitudes about supporting local business (or not supporting it, as the case may be) were pretty strange.  One day one of my advertisers said to me, "Who is this guy? I’ve asked all my friends, and nobody knows who he is."  So I checked with the chamber of commerce and the economic development office (where a man who employed 50 people in an industrial capacity would surely be known) and nobody had ever heard of him.  He was banned, but not before he sent me a nasty e-mail refusing to reveal his true identity.

But because his comments were always on business-related issues, and he seemed so well informed, if not a little out of step with the local business community, don’t you think the other business owners had a right to know who he was?  I think so.

I make no promise that every person who comments on The Batavian is using a real name, but I do promise a best effort to enforce that policy and that people who violate the policy will be banned. That’s the best I can do and for the most part, and our users seemed satisfied with this "best effort" approach.

And it’s clear that users care very much about our real name policy.

They care because it helps create a more trusting environment.  They care because it helps promote community (I know who you are and you know who I am, so its more social, fun and rewarding to participate with you — one of the same key features that makes Facebook successful). They care because they appreciate that on The Batavian, for the most part, we can discuss local issues as mature adults (it still does get out of hand some times, but we get better all the time at keeping a lid on nasty arguments).

As I alluded to before, a real name policy will not magically make an online community a more civil environment.  If community managers are not taking ownership of the community — which is a matter of both policing and participating (weed, seed and feed, is the old community managers motto), then no imposed policy is going to work.  Online community is not a set-it-and-forget it proposition.  It is labor intensive and requires dedication.

A couple of closing points.

– I’m not against anonymity on the Web.  In certain forums — say one dedicated to victims of child abuse — it is absolutely necessary.  Also, there is nothing wrong with an individual setting up an anonymous blog.  If the market place embraces his anonymity and finds what he has to say valuable, bully for him.  My advocacy for real names deals strictly with a professional news organization environment where ethics should be a hallmark of a credible news organization.

When you put it in those terms, all of the arguments about how the Federalists Papers were written anonymously (even if the argument isn’t entirely historically accurate) become pretty moot.  We’re not talking treatises to change the fate of a nation here, but information and commentary shared under the banner of a legitimate news organization.

– A real name policy, contrary to what some say, will not prevent anonymous news tips or scare off the whistleblower.  At The Batavian, we get anonymous news tips all the time.  They just don’t come through comments.  This argument against real names is a pure straw man.

As a closing emphasis: I strongly believe that news organizations that allow anonymous comments are committing a grievous ethical blunder. There is no justification or excuse for it. They are tarnishing their brand and credibility at a time they can least afford to devalue either.

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  • tishgrier

    Howard–this is one of the best arguments I’ve ever read re disallowing anonymous comments on news sites.  and I agree re ferriting out political opponents who may be sock puppeting or doing other nefarious things using pseudonymns. 

    As you know, commenting and community have always been important topics for me, and I’ve always been an advocate of newspapers having better moderation policies, enforcing them fairly, and connecting better with their local communities to avoid trolling and general incivility among members.  I think some are moving in that direction.  and that’s good, as it will, as you say, help their brands.

    One argumen I’ve heard over and over about anonymity or psuedonymous comments, and not having a policy of real names, has something to do with "free speech."  But I’ve never bought that one.  If you’re really interested in community, and fairness, and the like, and someone is incivl (or worse, sock puppeting) is that really protected "free speech"?  and if it is, is it the responsibility of a newspaper site to protect that kind of "free speech"? 

    I always feel, too that if someone has a burning issue, or knows some real dirt, they will contact someone in a news org directly, not through a message board or other open forum.  After all, there’s always email.  Or better yet, an anonymous blog–which, even after a number of high proile libel suits, is still a protected form of free speech.

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