Stranger danger

BY Jeff Denham

As trolls become an actual liability for online publishers, we say goodbye (and good riddance!) to anonymous comments.

Not all that long ago, “building an online community” was central to many legacy media organizations’ attempts to stay relevant in the digital era.

Comment sections were seen as a way to get consumers coming to websites and engaging in discussion about the issues at hand, a sort of digital analogue to the letters-to-the-editor page.

In theory, at least, two results were expected (and, for the most part, weren’t fulfilled): Indirectly, an online community would help guide editorial decisions about how and what to cover based on improved traffic analytics and the substance of discussions. Directly, an online community would make a news organization more attractive to advertisers as revenues from print circulation declined.

One major issue with online communities, however, is that users are under no obligation to share their real names. As a result, unless the platform doesn’t allow it, most users identify themselves with pseudonyms.

In the past, newspapers often would call a letter-writer to confirm their identity—a relatively easy task, given the low numbers of letters posted. Online, however, the speed and ease of posting a comment is inversely proportional to the speed and ease of verifying the commenter’s identity.

It’s become clear that there’s something about anonymity that brings out the worst in (some) people, leading to a growing trend of media outlets—and other content creators— abandoning the practice.

This past March, CBC News announced the public broadcaster would no longer allow anonymous commenting on its online news stories. The move came on the heels of an earlier decision late in 2015 to close comments altogether on stories about Indigenous peoples, as they tended to attract an unusual amount of racist vitriol.

On the other side of the Atlantic, The Guardian studied its own anonymous comment section and found that of the 10 opinion writers to attract the most negative comments, eight were women. The other two in the top 10 were Black men— even though the majority of the newspaper’s opinion writers are white men.

And the courts have now stepped in. Many media organizations in the European Union have dropped commenting after a controversial European Court of Human Rights ruling determined that an Estonian news site, Delfi, could be held liable for defamatory comments posted by anonymous users.

The reasons given were that, in the court’s opinion, the comments amounted to hate speech, and that Delfi had taken “insufficient measures” to “weed out the comments.”

In the US, media outlets both massive (Reuters, Chicago Sun-Times) and minuscule (The Montana Standardhave been doing the same for a variety of reasons—poor taste, the threat of lawsuits, a shortage of resources—that ultimately suggest the potential costs just aren’t worth the supposed benefits.

Many have shifted the responsibility (and presumably the liability) to the big three of social media—Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, which all promise a greater degree of users having a verifiable identity—with the only downside being that the media outlets must surrender a degree of ownership of the comments.

Time will tell whether the move will be effective. Anonymous commenters always seem to find a way to make their voices heard—for your brand’s sake, just make sure you’re not on the hook for what they’re saying.