Monday, December 2, 2013

Anonymous Commenting: The Conversation Killer

Erik Opheim

In an article from the American Journalism Review, journalist Tim Ebner highlights the developing controversy of online user-commenting. Recently, some online newspapers have made the switch from anonymous commenting to "Facebook-only" commenting in an attempt to increase conversation. 

With the switch, users of these sites can no longer share their point of view without their Facebook-profile-picture and full-name millimeters from their comment.  As a result, commenters have lost the ability to hide behind the mask of the Internet and may need to think a few seconds more before rifling absurd comments they otherwise would not have been held accountable for.


The switch, however, has many wondering about the ethics involved. A few questions arise:

*Is it ethical to give Facebook the distribution (power) of speech about news articles?

This question is interesting because if you answer yes it sort of takes away from our freedom of speech.  If your only ability to comment on a video is to have a Facebook profile, that gives Facebook a creepy amount of power. Shouldn't someone have a right to share a meaningful/thoughtful comment (that could potentially create a positive problem-solving argument) without being forced to join Facebook?  The answer is yes. 

However, for the time being, and if holding users accountable for comments is the way the "comment-box" is heading, Facebook may be the only option for now. Maybe one day there will be a universal Internet profile for the individual but until that day Facebook is really the only current, realistic option for this push.

*Is it ethical to force people to comment with their true identity (revealing personal information)?

This question is interesting because sometimes political pressure or outside pressures (job, family, reputation) can inhibit peoples' true feelings on issues. People with "something to lose" (based off pressures) will be reluctant to comment as frequently or with as much honesty if they are held accountable. If they need to comment with such accountability, they may simply decide to just not comment as it would not be worth it.

*Does holding people accountable for their comments better inform the public?

Comments are not part of the news story when the story is printed, but after they begin coming in from the public do they become just as important to the story? Maybe.  

Comments from the public benefit the public. They can help keep journalists in check, share insight or related articles/opinions and can also argue or converse with other commenters. Allowing anonymous commenting results in some people "trolling," or posting absurd comments in an attempt to draw offended people in for the playful enjoyment of messing with their beliefs.  

If this is going on, it takes away from the value of commenting. If someone with a true, honest and thoughtful opinion's comment is right above a comment that says, "this video is a waffle," it takes away from the seriousness of not only the commenter but the article as well.


The switch from anonymous commenting to accountable commenting on online news articles is the way of the future. I do not agree with Facebook controlling this platform as it gives Facebook a weird control of speech, but for now they are probably in the best position to develop/explore it.  

The flow of genuine ideas in conversation is important to the progress of society. I feel that with everything considered, people should have the same accountability behind a computer as they would anywhere else. While that may never be fully possible, the switch from anonymous commenting to accountable commenting is the ethical move.


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