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.


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 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, 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.

Real name policy on

When I look at the names of the people who have already registered for the new, I see nothing but a list of friends.

And that’s part of what I want for the resurrected  I want this to be a site where people feel safe to discuss whatever issue I happen to introduce in a blog post.

I’m done with trolls.

I’m done with anonymous posters.

On a web site where the expectation is we attract an audience of mature, professional adults, the notion that all participants contribute under the byline of his or her real name shouldn’t seem obscene or unexpected.

As a matter of ethics, I believe anybody in the information business should never, under any circumstances, hide behind a pseudonym.

The real name policy was mocked in comments on Dan Kennedy’s blog. I figure such derisive remarks come from people who somehow just managed to graduate from their AOL account 18 months ago.  I’ve been running online communities for well more than a decade.  I’ve learned a few things. As arrogant as it sounds, I’m not taking lessons from neophytes.

Of course, the question naturally arises: How will I enforce a real name policy? And my only answer is, as best I can.

Basically, if you’re a troll, you won’t last long on my new site.  If you engage in personal attacks against me or other people leaving comments on the site, you will be blocked.

Fake names are generally pretty easy to detect, and since it’s my site, I don’t need proof. I only need suspicion.

Does that mean I’ll delete comments just because a person disagrees with me? Of course not. I happen to love a good discussion over differing views.  But I know it’s also possible to disagree, as they say, without being disagreeable.

Basically, my expectation and what I intend to do enforce as best I an, is that discussions on stick to issues and aim at being instructive.

If my draconian rules mean fewer people will comment, I’m willing to live with that.

And if you think you should be able to spout off whatever bullshit you please without attaching your real name to your opinions, then isn’t the place for you, and I don’t care if you don’t like it. There’s always where any person can rant to his chickenshit anonymous heart’s content.

Ethical people, honest people, always use their real names.

Information ethics

In an age when information flows like a million Mississippis, we need to have an ethics about information.

In an age when access to information is as open as a billion galaxies, each individual is responsible for handling information ethically.

In an age when we are all information creators, contributors and consumers, we share a responsibility to each other not to mishandle information.

The information ethic begins with each person who both understands the power of information and the scourge of misinformation.

This is a role not solely for journalists, but journalists as the paid purveyors of information must not slip in adherence to high ethical standard (the ethical burden on journalists has never been greater); this is not a role not solely for bloggers, but bloggers as the vanguard of a new information river, must take on the burden of protecting and cherishing information; mostly, this is a role for all participants in the conversation, both the creators and the followers.

Not all participants will rise to the occasion, increasing the burden on those of use who recognize the responsibility.

The information ethic requires that we strive always for honesty, transparency, accuracy and fairness.

We must teach ethics as well as we practice ethics.

This is the ideal. Not all participants will recognize nor care for even a shadow of the ideal, but those of us who do must hold ourselves to the highest standards of information ethics.

This is no code of conduct we sign, no pledge we take, no oath we swear, no authority we obey. It is just something we do within ourselves.

And if we do, society will be better for it.

McCain coverage: Is Jayson Blair still working for the NYT?

There’s lots of blather all over the web about the New York Times piece on John McCain.  

I could link to something, but you’ve all seen it. Here are my own four comments:

First, the priestly class of reporters and editors in America have forever heaped spite on blogs for being cesspools of rumor and innuendo. So what’s so different about the Times piece? The opening concentration on McCain’s implied sexual affair is nothing but gossip from either unnamed sources or pure speculation. There isn’t a shred of direct evidence to support it, and as Dan Kennedy notes, its probably nobody’s business.

Second, the priestly class of reporters and editors in America routinely bemoan the dumbing down of journalism because of the innumerable stories about Britney Spears. How is the Times piece any different than celebrity gossip? The next time a guy like Jim O’Shea complains about Britney Spears coverage, just point him to the NYT McCain piece. 

Third, anonymous sources. If there is a more cowardly way of reporting than using anonymous sources to create smear articles, I don’t know what it is. If you’re going to use anonymous sources, use them for real scandal — you know, like Watergate.

Fourth, I  chuckled when I read the opening graphs of the story.  The spin reminds me of this piece from the Onion.  You can sensationalize anything if you want a story bad enough.  

Folks, journalism is in serious need of reinvention, if this is what America’s finest paper thinks is news.