Monday, November 30, 2015

Slow Death of the Anon? Fading Anonymity in Comment Sections

Zulfa Rizqiya

As innocent as an article may be, the complementary comments section can turn the topic of an article on its head and open a can of obscene, racist, and sexist comments.  While one would hesitate to make the same comments in person, anonymity has provided a shield for offensive commenters to type away as they please.  No identity? No liability for your comments! 

In a 2011 article, the American Journalism Review posed the question, "Is Facebook the Solution to the Obnoxious Comment Plague?"  To determine Facebook as a solution to vulgar comments and "trolls," anonymous posters who comment with the intention of provoking or annoying, AJR looked into USA Today's comment system. 

Recognizing how anonymity factors into the quality of comments and typically fills the comments section with "trolls," USA Today, under parent company Gannett, decided to transition from the old anything-goes comment system to a new system that would require commenters to post using their Facebook profiles.

In an email with AJR, a Gannett spokesperson said "the decision to change our commenting tool was made to provide a welcoming environment that encourages high-quality and relevant contributions"

The logic is simple: requiring commenters to post through Facebook holds them accountable for their comments.  Because every commenter is identifiable, every comment holds representation of a real person, preventing the person from commenting solely to provoke or annoy.

According to USA Today, the results were exactly what they were hoping for.  With the new system in use, they found an increase in civility and more participation from local public figures.  In addition, on their side of the comments section, the time and energy spent moderating comments was alleviated.

For me, the new system is also a blessing: no more digging through the comments section full of trolls to find the relevant information I've been searching for.

Not everyone is in favor of the new system as I am.  Those opposed to the new system argue the omission of anonymity is unethical as it goes against the nature of Internet dialogue and how it should be able to discourse and digress.  They also believe that when a news outlet turns their comments section over to a third party social media platform like Facebook, journalistic intent such as archiving information and protecting sources gets lost.  Another argument is that anonymity allowed an open, public discussion and linking it to Facebook makes it more private and personal, leaving out the audience not present on social media.

While the arguments against the new comment system are valid, I believe providing a quality environment for discussion through the comments section trumps, especially when comment sections can become, at its worst, a place to marginalize social groups via the anonymity system.

Sadie Dupuis, the lead vocalist and guitarist for indie rock group Speedy Ortiz, took to Twitter to address the fault of this system on popular music news blog BrooklynVegan.

Via Twitter

In response to Dupuis' tweets, BrooklynVegan revealed that they, like USA Today, would transition to a new commenting system free of anonymous posters by 2016.  

Ultimately, I believe there are more merits than faults with the new comment system.  In the same way that journalists are responsible for the stories they publish, I believe commenters should be held to the same ethical expectations of being transparent and responsible for their comments.

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