Should TalkAbout continue to allow anonymous postings?

Opinion

By on Sun, November 18, 2007

"The promiscuous use of anonymity breeds distrust. Readers react to anonymous online postings with the same skepticism that they have for newspaper articles that rely unnecessarily on unnamed sources. They wonder if the anonymous blogger is a paid shill, or has some other conflict of interest, just as they wonder if a newspaper’s anonymous source is objective or has an ax to grind. And if the use of anonymity is not explained or apparent from the context, readers will question a blogger’s good faith, just as they may wonder whether a newspaper’s anonymous source really exists.

"And anonymity corrodes the conventions of civil discourse, giving vent to impulses that, for society’s sake, are perhaps best held in check. Viciously personal attacks, racist screeds and paranoid rants are commonplace on the anonymous Internet. While such displays may provide an interesting laboratory for Freudian psychologists, they contribute nothing to debate on matters of public interest. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this invective, you know that it is impossible to reason with people who are screaming at you from behind a one-way mirror. The volume of their screaming only goes up."

It sounds like a perfect description of what TalkAbout has become. Yet Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist writing an opinion piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle Insight Section (Sunday, November 18, 2007, page E2) probably has never visited our own TalkAbout site.

He is Executive Director of the California First Amendment Coalition (http://www.cfac.org) and rationally discusses situations where anonymity is crucial - for example, "a Chinese blogger, defying a government censorship decree, publishes information about the crash of a military transport plane." Anonymity in that situation protects the Chinese blogger’s life.

But "[f]or bloggers who publish in the relative security of the United States (compared with, say, China or Iran or Singapore), fear of reprisals, the most commonly cited justification for anonymity, is greatly exaggerated. When a blogger in California mentions the risk of reprisals, he is really talking about the discomfort of having to stand in a supermarket checkout line next to a city council member whom he has criticized."

It is a very interesting opinion piece. Some of you will disagree. Others will find Mr. Scheer’s full article very informative. His conclusion:

"Most anonymous speech is just digital graffiti. Although it is protected from government regulation under the First Amendment, private publishers - whether bloggers or news media Web sites - have a duty to take responsibility for materials that they publish. In all but the most extreme cases, taking responsibility means identifying the author."

If you didn’t purchase today’s Chronicle at the newsstand or get it by home delivery, you can read the entire piece online. It is headlined "Anonymity vs. Responsibility: Balancing political freedom with journalistic credibility in the Age of Blogging".
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2007/11/18/IN23TC0K5.DTL

I have no expectation that the Half Moon Bay Review will change its policies for TalkAbout. But there is very good reason for the Review to think through their position and consider good journalistic ethics.

Paul Perkovic
Montara


Comment 1
Mon, November 19, 2007 6:55am
Ken Johnson
All my comments

Paul,

You seem to confuse the Review with a real Newspaper when you wrote: “Review to think through their position and consider good journalistic ethics.” Just because something is printed in newspaper format doesn’t make it a newspaper.

The Half Moon Bay Review is currently a public relations publication designed to present a single point of view. At one time, it reported on both sides of an issue, unfortunately, that is no longer true. Every once and a while there is a glimmer of “journalistic ethics”, but the Review’s Publisher quickly stomps it out!

To change TalkAbout would be a drastic change to the purpose. Anonymous postings allow a single person using a variety of identities to appear to be a group opinion. It also allows the appearance that the Review actually has a readership well beyond reality.

I was curious for a moment to see how the High School racial allegations was handled and there ‘they’ were at their keyboards; wearing their white sheets and hoods, drooling on themselves. Apparently the racists in our community went so far overboard that even Editor Clay Lambert was disgusted enough to ‘terminate’ an entire thread.

So Paul, I too share the hope that the Review might again become an ‘ethical publication’ but that apparently will only happen when the Review’s owners are affected. If Wick Communications would find that the Review is no longer profitable; then we would find a management change and a return to “always appear objective to our readers”.

Ken Johnson

Paul,

I read the opinion piece.  The article fails to mention some USA based Blogers justification for remaining anonymous.  One is that many employment agreements prohibit the employee for damaging the reputation of their employer, partners or customers.  Some corporations initiate legal proceedings against individuals and groups that “get in their way”.  Given the financial resources and legal protections for corporations, why would anyone speak against them publicly?  The only real restraint on corporations being heavy handed with individual critics is the public relations fall out from them stepping on little people.  Employers frequently Google prospective employees.  How is being the tequila shot master on Myspace or opposed to Wavecrest development on Coastsideror arguing vocifereously to death on a Blog going to look to a prospective employer or client?  So, identifiable public speech on Internet forums carries some risks even in “the land of the free”.

A real newspaper uses anonymous sources with great care.  The reporters and editors investigate the motivations for the anonymous source to talk to them and their reasons to request anonymity.  In many cases the journalism professionals attempt to corroborate these sources with other sources.  Sometimes the journalists hold off a story to see how it unfolds to test credibility of the anonymous source.  The journalists weigh the timeliness and the newsworthiness of the report against being manipulated by their anonymous source.

One of the huge fallasies of modern times is that if you can measure something, it must be significant.  Hits on a website is one of those meaningless measurements.  It’s the mania of people trying to figure out how to make a buck on the Internet.

Talkabout seems to be where certain political factions float trail balloons and see what happen to them.  Some get shot down promptly, some get attacked by a pack of wild dogs, some get put up on the pedestal of correct political thought by the regulars and some float away unnoticed never to be seen again.  I don’t really think its a place to have a serious political discussion.  One of the great things about equality, democracy and our popular culture is average folks looking at George Bush and think they can lie better than him and winning is everything.  I don’t think any hearts and minds are being won on Talkabout.  Some seem to show up drunk or under the influence in drag or a costume, run doppelgangers and let their alter ego hang out there.  It’s more of a role playing game.

So, like everything on the Internet, one has to approach what one finds with skepticism.  I’ve found Coastsider is real people.  Many I have met in person.  After talking with them, I can appreciate the value of their posts.  If I want to engage in a political discussion that is controversial, at least I will know who I am arguing with.  If The HMB Review managers want to get addicted to the Internet crack of website hits and pander to their mob, why not?

Vince Williams
Moss Beach

Comment 3
Mon, November 19, 2007 3:56pm
Barry Parr
All my comments

Ken, I think it’s important to separate your dim opinion of the Review from your feelings about anonymity in TalkAbout. Newspapers are trying to feel their way into some territory no one understands very well, and their failures aren’t necessarily driven by an agenda. However, TalkAbout is a failed community—Lord of the Flies without the personal responsibility.

Coastsider allowed anonymous posts for the first 18 months of its existence. I got rid of them for a reason.

I recall on TalkAbout post from an anonymous writer who made some unsupported claims about a nonparticipant in TalkAbout saying, “[the person I’m attacking] told me this personally.”  Hearsay from anonymous witnesses is SOP on anonymous forums.

It’s prima facie evidence of TalkAbout’s failure as a community forum is that hardly a week goes by without Clay whinging about the poor behavior and general worthlessness of the anonymous rabble on the site.

Does anybody think that any of those n-word posts Clay deleted was posted under the user’s real name?

Incidentally, I posted the same quotes from the same article on TalkAbout. You can see what the discussion is over there if you want.
http://talkabout.hmbreview.com/topic.php?t=917&c=8&d;=

     

It’s really only fitting. The number of anonymous postings on TalkAbout in response to Paul’s opinion completely dwarf the number of brave souls willing to post under their owm name.

In fact, I noticed that a poster named “Clay, The Editor of the Review” seems to suffering a bout of schizophrenia. Or perhaps is just somebody just posting under Clay’s name. Who the heck knows?

Either way, I think Paul has made his point. Anonymous postings are toxic to productive social discourse. But don’t expect the Review to change it’s ways.

Comment 6
Tue, November 20, 2007 12:29am
Ken Johnson
All my comments

Barry,

Maybe you are right about Agendas, otoh, if it looks like Duck droppings; and it smells like Duck droppings; and there is a Duck standing over it

Ken Johnson

Comment 7
Tue, November 20, 2007 7:33am
Lori Jesper
All my comments

The “Comments” areas of any online publication do not represent journalism. I agree wholeheartedly that the Talkabout section on the Review’s website has deteriorated in one giant piefight. That’s happening everywhere. Across the board in the “Blogosphere” you will find that the comment areas, unless heavily moderated, remain nothing but the playground of blowhards and bored teenagers. The journalism happens within the stories themselves. Moreover, your average blog with a comments section violates many rules of journalism constantly. Traditional news media websites attempt with their comment areas some sort of expanded Letters to the Editor. As Barry said, this is new territory for them. The rate at which trolls come crawling out to the woodwork, both anonymous and not, will hopefully make the newspaper editors rethink how they would like such entities to work.

I think the larger question is: should we even have comment areas knowing full well their limitations? The owners’ of blogs and online media sources can demand real names all they want. In reality, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. I think what the Review really faces is not whether they should allow anonymous postings, but how heavily they should moderate their comments. And that’s a bigger job than Clay can handle.

If a site is to have comments, I’m all for house rules. Someone either here or on Talkabout noted that commenting online is akin to going over to someone’s house. If a person makes a scene and behaves badly at a someone’s house party, likely that person will be asked to leave. I don’t feel it’s undemocratic or unethical to censor because in real social settings, humans do this all the time. The process becomes part of our own social growth and part of how we develop as a community. Rules don’t necessarily erase democracy. Comments sections aspire to mirror social conversation. If you would not put up with some guy’s rude, racist, sexist or violent comments at a coffee shop, you should not do so online either.

On another tangent, my personal experience with online forums is that I prefer to remain anonymous whenever possible. My reasons rarely get put forth in the arguments typically posed in favor of real names. Women have additional concerns in making the decision about whether or not to post anonymously. In the real world, women have been tracked down, threatened and harmed by men as a result of their online activities. Sometimes there are very good reasons for a woman to post anonymously.

I feel it’s especially relevant when the site you’re posting on can identify you geographically. Furthermore, I don’t want to be at Strawflower Village for a late night Safeway run and have some weirdo who figured out who I am following me to my car because he’s reacting to my posting online. This is the reality of women’s lives. I think it’s disrespectful of men to ignore this fact of life for women and make demands insisting on real names without providing appropriate protections for members of that online community. If the comments area structure leaves women vulnerable to gender based attacks, then you place women in a position of having to compromise both their online and physical security. If women don’t feel comfortable participating, even with real names, you’ve effectively erased the democracy at that point because you’re missing the participation of half the community.

I participate in a women’s forum that has an interesting take on the whole thing. The posters are all anonymous - by design. Registration is required. Everyone uses the same handle for every post, so you get to know people even without using real names. Some are comfortable disclosing high levels of personal information. Others are not. The site is heavily moderated using volunteers within the community. There have been many heated arguments about heavy handed moderating. Some posters, like me, are in favor of heavy moderating (paradoxically, heavy moderation and anonymous posting seem to produce the highest levels of participation - people feel safe to speak!). Policy is emerging and forming as a result. Trolls are swiftly identified and deleted. I’m impressed with how quickly the moderators rediscover those same trolls when the trolls re-register under another name. The whole site runs very well, and I see democracy in action all the time. I see amazing, informative, heartfelt, well-reasoned debates on every thread.

And it’s all done without real names.

So, while it’s tempting to use the real names topic as a lightning rod for showing whether a comment area is democratic or undemocratic, civilized or barbarian, in reality far more social factors go into the success of a comments section. Maybe we need to admit to ourselves that the real reason Talkabout has become Lord of the Flies is that there really are that many loud-mouthed assholes on the Coastside.

Comment 8
Tue, November 20, 2007 8:07am
Barry Parr
All my comments

That’s an interesting solution to allowing anonymous comments while creating a sense of personal responsibility. 

However, because Coastsider is about a place, because we know each other already, and because we have so many local public figures posting, I think it’s important that we be willing to stand behind what we say.

For example, if a member of a local board posts their own name, I want to know if the people responding to them are political opponents, concerned citizens, or the usual pack of dogs.

I know some people fear harassment or worse.  But I’m not going to let the thugs rob us of the opportunity to have a public conversation about our community. I’ve tried it both ways and it’s better when you know who’s posting.

Comment 9
Tue, November 20, 2007 9:51am
Cheri Parr
All my comments

Anonymous posting produces exactly what you expect. 100% acrimony 0% accountability.

Comment 10
Tue, November 20, 2007 3:20pm
Carl May
All my comments

My DSL has been down for a couple of days, so maybe I missed it. Why am I supposed to care about how the Review’s online forum is conducted?

Carl May

Comment 11
Tue, November 20, 2007 4:25pm
Barry Parr
All my comments

Good question.  I would have phrased Paul’s question differently: “Are anonymous forums a good idea?”, which I think is an interesting question.

The opinion piece he pointed to is one that I’d seen and thought was interesting and provocative. I came close to posting it here myself.

Comment 12
Tue, November 20, 2007 8:24pm
Carl May
All my comments

Barry—>>“I would have phrased Paul’s question differently: ‘Are anonymous forums a good idea?’, which I think is an interesting question.”

I can only agree and find quite a few general points made by others in the above messages to be thought-provoking. Whatever a forum’s policies may be, they should be clearly stated. Then a person can choose whether or not to participate.

I understand the various stated concerns about retribution. People may also engender cyber-attacks of various sorts when they are candid about their identities on message boards.

Personally, I don’t care. I’m not running for anything and can’t be bothered with remembering how my comments were shaded to make them more “acceptable” or persuasive.

Carl May

Interesting topic. I am also a bit disappointed about anonymous posting (any forum, Talkabout,...). While I understand the importance of voicing concerns publicly while remaining “somehow” anonymous, we must look for better ways of going about it. Here are some thoughts:

- the IP address of the user can ALWAYS be detected by the forum server (anonymity in cyberspace is a relative term)
- I can’t post on the Coastsider without logging in
- A combination of login ID/IP address can be used to control ID faking; offensive IDs can be reported (by other users) and, if deemed necessary, canceled temporarily or permanently by the forum administrator(s).
- yes, I understand that some people don’t have PCs at home and they use the library’s PCs… but hey, forum posting is not a fundamental right. Else, we have to deal with all the nonsense.

I tried Talkabout a few times, and I was always amazed at the wide range in quality of the posted material. When I use it I have to spend a lot of time attempting to filter out the irrelevant comments, and to be honest, I have better things to do with my time.

Any thoughts?

Manolo Fernandez
EL Granada