Web Development

The case of anonymity in social media


Anonymous comments are often the bane of every community manager's existence. Even the website editorial staffs for major newspapers - perhaps the biggest perpetrators of allowing anonymity online - hate the fact random people can leave random anything on their websites.

Gannett, one of the largest publishers of newspapers and media properties in the world, introduced article comments in 2006 and, according to social media director Jodi Gersh, the company's dismay with comments has grown. Now the media giant is pushing toward holding commenters accountable for their words.

"The level of conversation on stories turned into a place for racial slurs, name bashing and other negative behaviors," Gersh said. "We worked tirelessly to resolve the issue, however the problem remained. We began to notice on the same articles shared on Facebook, comments left there were more positive and raised the level of conversation around our content."

Gersh reports that Gannett is piloting Facebook Comments - using the social network's commenting system as a website's native feedback function, thus tying the comment to the individual's Facebook profile - on four Gannett news websites. She says the company has been, "pleased with the results," and has seen increased civility in comment threads, along with increased participation from local public figures and other news sources.

You clean up the neighborhood and people treat it with more respect, right?

But what happened to the typical journalistic argument that anonymity was some sort of right?

"This is not a First Amendment issue," declared Jeffrey Weiss, a writer who has participated on online news sites that range from mainstream media sites like the Dallas Morning News to online-only news sites including Politics Daily and Real Clear Religion. "The First Amendment outlaws government restriction on speech. What I want to restrict in my living room or on my website has nothing to do with that."

Rick Redding, who runs the politics-heavy local issue site Louisvilleky.com, supports anonymous commenting, saying it often begets better comments.

"There may be some name calling on a particularly controversial topic, but as the person who's in charge of the site I reserve the right to delete anything that's profane or otherwise beyond the bounds of decency," he explained. "I think regulars to sites get to know the other posters and eventually comment back and forth. If it's a personal attack on someone in the news or another commenter, I try to police that by giving a warning and/or deleting the comment."

Redding also says he thinks the nastiness of anonymous comments is dwindling. Regardless, more and more traditional media sites are moving to the moderated or full disclosure approaches.

WKYT, a Lexington, Ky., based television station with an active comment community on its digital property, allows anonymous commenting, but with a layer of station moderation. Tim Coles, the station's digital sales manager, said people don't come to the site specifically to comment, but then react to the news of the day, which can sometimes produce emotional responses.

Protecting readers or viewers who don't wish to be publicly identified is important, he says, because more people feel free to chime in. Site visitors have the option to connect via Facebook and tie themselves to the comment. Coles says about 50 percent of users do.

The moderation, though time and labor intensive, helps keep the conversation decorum at a comfortable level for the station. He says as long as the station's human resources can keep up with the volume of comments, they will allow anonymity.

"The reason that many media sites are moving to eliminate anonymous comments and/or requiring moderation at some level is simple: Total freedom resulted in a level of ‘conversation' at sharp odds with the tone the site wanted to maintain," Weiss said.

So the trend is at least moving away from anonymity without some level of filtering. And it's a good thing because the courts are beginning to show clear signs of agreement that pure anonymity without limitations is not wise.

Atlanta-based executive Paul Syiek won a substantial defamation case against a former employee who posted accusations against him on an anonymous bulletin board on TheRipOffReport.com. The post accused Syiek of several things, including violations of U.S. Department of Labor regulations. Since the accusations were able to be proven false in court, the poster committed libel against Syiek.

The ruling was for a shade under $200,000. For one post. By one person. On one site.

"A good rule of thumb is whether or not the accusation is ‘verifiably false,'" Syiek's attorney, Luke Lantta of the Bryan Cave law firm said. "There is a constitutional right to anonymity on the Internet, up to a point. When you cross that line from protected speech to that which is truly harmful, there's a good opportunity to hold you accountable for what you posted."

Lantta also warns potential commentors that there's no such thing as true anonymity. He reports uncovering several anonymous poster identities in work with his clients over the years. In Georgia alone, 2011 has seen three cases of anonymous posters brought to court and fined in excess of $100,000.

The saving grace for companies and their IT or social media decision-makers is that the website hosting the offending comments is not typically in the path of litigation. According to Lantta, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides immunity to websites that host user-generated content. The websites can't be held liable for the post, but they can be compelled to reveal information about the poster.

Lantta says we're really only at the beginning of the courts policing anonymous commenting on websites. "It's a growing trend," he confirmed. "There are more judgments and cases filed over the last few years than all the previous years combined. People and companies have just reached a saturation point."

Jason Falls is co-author of the book No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and CEO of Social Media Explorer, an education and information products company focused on digital and social media marketing. He is a regular contributor to TechRepublic.

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