I’m updating this post with this link: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/10/the-psychology-of-online-comments.html
I was asked recently for my position on anonymous comments on newspaper/media website stories and said I had advocated for some time that they should not be allowed.
I had taken this stance while Acting Editor of The Royal Gazette. I had also advocated the same position for Letters to the Editor.
The media are concerned about the number of hits and the number of unique users on their websites – but also the time a person spends on the website.
It is that statistic, combined with the number of hits, they will use to attract advertisers. The more time people spend on the website, the better.
Comments are a very popular feature and some people visit a website only to read the comments. There is a fear that making people give their real identities will limit the number of comments and thus reduce time on site stats.
Newspapers, especially ones like The Royal Gazette, need to be the heartbeat of the community. Comments on stories help them to play that role by being a sounding board for opinions.
But the comments as they are now do not meet that role unless they are heavily moderated and there is no time (read resources) for that kind of intensive workload (believe me, I have done it.)
While there is freedom of speech there should not be carte blanche to allow any comment – there has to be accountability and responsibility, there are also laws of libel. It simply is not OK to post anything and by stopping anonymity, you will impose accountability and responsibility.
The level of debate also dissolves with anonymous comments exposing it to a lack of respect. While newspapers/media crave time on site etc, they have to have respect. Without it, they are not a credible organization. That is a slippery slope….
The fact that the comments system is being abused – and it is – should spur the media organisations (or perhaps the Media Council) to do something – because of the vital community role.
I always felt that there was an element of hypocrisy about The Royal Gazette (and let’s face it, it is the RG that we are talking about here) calling for increased Government transparency while at the same time allowing anonymous letters and comments on stories.
TRG had called for transparency but it had never really followed suit itself. There are many issues here, but I always felt that the paper should give a little as well as asking for a lot….
The reason for anonymous letters dates back to the time of slavery. The idea was to allow a public voice for the repressed. Thank God that is not the case now, but there is still a very powerful argument that in such a small island there is the real risk of retaliation and recrimination.
I have seen someone suffer as a result of this kind of insular behavior and it is not pleasant. They were treated as traitors and cast out, yet their story was genuine and their reasons for revealing it were very responsible.
I have suffered badly at the hands of those whose comments I disallowed or whose comments I moderated. One person stated: Jeremy Deacon rapes babies. I was often the focal point for people’s vitriol, to the extent that I was told not to leave my name any more when I removed or changed comments.
I used my real name, my attackers chose not to – ever.
But if you have something good to say, something purposeful, intelligent, helpful etc, why would you choose not to publicly stand up for what you believe? Why would media organisations not want to encourage that sort of behavior?