Can anyone post anonymous comments to a website that is privately owned but operates publicly?
When media companies provide a platform for online comments, usually at the end of news stories, can anonymous ones be barred when they are racist, hateful, vile, disgusting or uncivilized?
The answer to both questions is yes. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that anonymous speech is protected by the First Amendment from government interference. But website owners can delete anonymous comments as they see fit. And they generally cannot be held liable for the content of third-party postings.
But media companies are trying to identify and curb the small number of so-called online “trolls”' who seem addicted to attacking anyone – the writers, authority figures and even each other on the same website. These trolls hide behind their anonymity and avoid taking responsibility for what they say.
The problem has been growing over the past decade. Here’s what industry commentator James Rainey wrote in his “On the Media” column for the Los Angeles Times:
“It seems long past time for reputable news sites to clamp down on the gutter talk. Otherwise, the open-door policy at npr.org, latimes.com and many other sites drives down the quality of the conversation and alienates the kind of thoughtful guests that make the party worth coming to in the first place.”
Rainey suggested that online postings be identified with real names, just like letters to the editor.
News sites have been experimenting with blocking user comments altogether, and with various forms of comment moderation. A new wrinkle from Facebook makes that job a bit easier. The social networking site offers a third-party comments plugin. Most important, though, is that the tie-in with Facebook requires that readers must use their real names when commenting on a news story. Facebook bars the use of fake names, although the rule isn’t strictly enforced.
Many news organizations consider this a boon. Facebook and its users, such as large newspapers, say the comments have improved in quality, and the media companies can see an increase in the number of comments, or hits, on their websites. And it's the hits that publishers tout when targeting advertisers.
Not everyone is impressed. David Eaves, a consultant on public policy, openness and negotiation, wrote that banning anonymous comments is bad for the media and society.
“It is disempowering those who are most marginalized … many people – for very legitimate reasons – don’t want to use their real name,” Eaves wrote. “What ending anonymity is really about is power.”
He said the media should not be farming out its privacy policies to Facebook, which he said has more than 80 million fake accounts.
“It also means that a comment you make, 10 years hence, can be saved on a newspaper’s website, traced back to your Facebook account and used by a prospective employer to decide if you should get a job,” Eaves added.
Though anonymous comments were an accepted part of the Internet in its infancy, in recent years news websites have felt the pain. Here are some examples:
- A judge in Cleveland sued the Plain Dealer for violating her privacy when it disclosed in a news story that anonymous online comments disparaging a lawyer were made from the judge’s court computer. She settled out of court.
- The U.S. attorney in New Orleans resigned, and it was disclosed in legal motions that his senior prosecutors had been making anonymous and provocative online comments about active criminal matters on the Times-Picayune website.
- Judges have ordered media websites to turn over the identity of anonymous commenters, including one in Texas where a couple won a $13.8 million defamation lawsuit against persons who had posted that they were sexual deviants and drug dealers.
- In Alton, Ill., the Telegraph was ordered to turn over names of two online readers to police because their comments were connected to a murder investigation. A judge ruled that the names were not protected by the state’s shield law for reporters. However, in several other states judges have ruled that shield laws protected the identity of anonymous commenters.
When a commenter used a vulgar word on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website, a former online editor deleted it, but it was posted again. Kurt Greenbaum found the commenter’s IP address originated at a school and called the school’s principal. The offending commenter lost his job. When word of Greenbaum’s action was reported on social websites, he was bombarded with thousands of comments, many of them attacking him and urging that he be fired. Greenbaum said all he was trying to do was keep the paper’s website from being abused.
One commenter said of the Greenbaum brouhaha that he preferred reading the comments to the news stories.
“Comments, even vulgar ones, are part of what makes it entertaining,” the commenter said.
John Seigenthaler was unhappy when he saw his biography falsified on Wikipedia in 2005. Seigenthaler is a noted First Amendment advocate, author and former Justice Department official who was injured protecting Freedom Riders. The Wikipedia bio said he was a suspect in the assassinations of John Kennedy and Kennedy’s brother, Bobby. Seigenthaler worked for months to get the infamous allegation removed from the website, which allowed volunteers to post information. At a First Amendment celebration in St. Louis last fall, he said he chose not to sue Wikipedia. He said he is against government intrusion. The best action is to complain to media officials about the “vandalism” caused by irresponsible online commenters, Seigenthaler said.
Some critics of anonymous comments say the U.S. government has helped foster the climate of freewheeling “anything goes” commenting. Under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, online publishers are not to be held liable for the content posted on their websites. In the print and broadcast worlds, publishers are liable.
As they wrestle with this problem, some news outlets have flatly barred any comments. Others seek to register those who want to state their opinions. Many news organizations lack the staff to police what is said on their websites.
The problem has been discussed by members of the Society of Professional Journalists, but no stated policy has been put forth. David Sheets, director of SPJ’s Region 7, said the stance is to “let each newspaper decide what is the best policy.”
At the American Journalism Review, editor Rem Rieder pulled no punches in a piece he wrote: “It’s time for new sites to stop allowing anonymous online comments.”
Studies show that people behave much worse if their identities are secret than if their true identities are known. In an article in Slate magazine headlined, “Troll, Reveal Thyself,” writer Farhad Manjoo said people behave differently when their comments are seen by a network of friends and family – people they know.
“Don’t say anything you’d be afraid to say in front of your mom,” Manjoo advised.