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SHOP TALK: Ideal comment board models: anonymous or eponymous?

'It brings out a little bit of the worst in some people. But I think most people act the same way depending on how their character is built. What I think it does is opens the door for those toxic people.'
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Welcome to Reporter Shop Talk Episode 16, I’m Stu Campaigne, a reporter at BayToday and I’m here with my colleague Dave Dale. We’re going to cover something that’s a hot topic across our industry: public commenting on website stories and social media accounts. We've gone back and forth on this in our own discussions over the past few months. What comes to mind when you're dealing with the comments?

Dave: Well, there are two kinds of commenting in my mind. There's with your name as a verified commenter. A lot of times it's through Facebook or something like that, which, yeah, you can make up a name and have a burner account, but it's usually closer to the person's real name. There are other ways, there is Disqus and whatnot where you have to be registered through an account and it is your real name and it's verified. And then there's the anonymous commenting that's allowed on some websites like BayToday where they make up a name, or they use their own depending, and they go at it. So, usually, the anonymous ones are a little bit more toxic and impolite. Usually. And I think that's the main problem. So I focus on that.

Stu: So we've got, you know, a few different schools of thought on this. Are there benefits before we kind of slag the whole deal? Are there benefits from having a comment section on our website? Let's start with that. I mean, I think it's obvious that there can be. Do you think there are?

Dave: Yes, there are benefits. Sometimes somebody in a position where their name would get them either in trouble or they're not allowed to comment or there might be retribution. They can add something to the conversation. It's actually valuable. They might have insight that nobody else has. So it's kind of like having a little brown paper envelope stuffed under your door trying to clue you in on something. And that's helpful. We sometimes get those, you know, @hotmail.com type emails from people from somebody maybe at City Hall or in some other place where they want to put us on the right track on a story or give us some inside information. So it can be helpful in the comment sections, yeah.

Stu: So, of course, on the flip side of that, being able to post under an assumed name, no effort is made to force them to use their true identity, that leads to a lot of, understand it's not everybody like you just said, there are probably tons of good people who would rather not own their own names. But, now that they don't have to, I think things start to slip away a little bit. And that's when we run into the name-calling and, you know, the personal kind of jabs that might not or likely would not come about if they were posting under their own name for fear of backlash, employment reasons, personal reasons. There are lots of reasons, but that anonymity seems to bring out the worst in some people.

Dave: It brings out a little bit of the worst in some people. But I think most people act the same way depending on how their character is built. What I think it does is opens the door for those toxic people. That would be the same ones yelling in the middle of the arena where everybody can see them. They just don't care. And, they don't have any manners and they're not polite and they're rude. And this is their language of vulgarity. This is their natural way. They've been given a carte blanche to be themselves without any type of identifier, which is freedom for an idiot.

Stu: That's right. So then we get into this. The next kind of the way this discussion tends to go is, is this censorship to take down comments? And I don't think it is. If the person is expressing ideas in a civil manner, I don't think you ever take that down.

I don't care what they write. Now, there are, I guess, some limits. But the hate stuff, I think you have to take it down.

And the problem we run into, maybe not just at BayToday, but in many different places, is we don't have the resources to review so many thousands of comments every day, we can't possibly effectively moderate them all. What do you think?

Dave: Well, that's true. There's a resources issue for that kind of thing. It's a natural thing and competitive, you know, media platforms. But I think, and this is my personal opinion, is that the type of media platform you are is reflected on what you allow on your platform. So if you're shooting to be a classy place for delivering news, you can't allow something like this to taint that product.

Stu: So what's the next step?

Dave: Well, there are other options. You can require confirmed names for people. You can require a delayed posting of the comments so they can be moderated at a time when it's good. Like, you know, somebody sending in a letter to the editor. We'll get at it when we can. It doesn't have to be immediate, although the nature of online news is a 24-hour news cycle and that story's gone after that … but it's really not gone after that because it's shared for weeks afterwards. So it depends on how big a market and how important it is. I guess you have to make a business decision as well as an editorial philosophy decision.

Stu: So, something we've discussed is shutting off the anonymous comments, it doesn’t have to be our website and we're just speaking generally. But, you know, so say we worked for an online newspaper. We're going to shut down the comments on the Web site like Village Media did at SooToday.

Dave: That's right. And other places, other entities have done the same.

Stu: You can't control social media. And I don't think it's a company's job to. But I just wonder what stops what’s happening on the website from happening on Facebook, other than the identity part of it, as you know? But again, not hard to get a burner account if you really want to do it enough.

Dave: There are two ways to approach it…the problem is, on Facebook, you put our story there and people start commenting underneath the story with their names or whatever and Facebook allows them as an alias or whatever. You can report those comments. If they don't want it, they're going to report it and have it dealt with by Facebook. 

They can also report it to BayToday, which has a policy right on their Facebook platform, saying that they'll respond to complaints about comments. I think that's a matter of educating the readers to the fact that when somebody does make an offensive comment, that it will be reviewed. It does add to the workload.

But, you know, compared to what you get back from those shared stories on Facebook that improve the readership on the website, maybe that has to be factored into the business plan.

Stu: Yeah, I agree. I think it's a real balance to provide a forum for your readers and now, conversely, to cut it off. But then you're going to find that I think people are absolutely addicted to comments. I think it's become like an addiction where they just can't help themselves. Like, that's what they're looking to do. A lot of them don't read the articles. A lot of them probably don't read the headlines. 

Dave: This is true, but I'm not sure toxic people are necessarily the better part of your readership, you know what I mean? I think they might be expendable if you decide that they're tainting your product.

Stu: All right. So, for instance, if we can get rid of, say, ‘GrumpyDave’ on the website, but allow them to comment under their real name on Facebook, have we won that battle?

Dave: Well, it's a step in the right direction. At least the people that are being offended have a chance of following up with that outside one, a media platform that protects the identities of people. Right, because of the nature of what it does and its confidentiality agreements when you register, other than, you know, police can get it through a search warrant. On Facebook, you've got to deal with Facebook. You can also delete those comments easily if you see them or they're reported.

It's a step in the right direction. But I think the most important thing is to provide an alternative avenue for people to give their opinion. And it's a matter of making it easy for them and encouraging them to write short letters to the editor or send in comments and then feature those comments so that they feel that they have added value to the discussion about an issue. So it's a matter of adding more of those comments and stuff to stories or featuring them and having a letter to the editor section that provides its own forum. But training readers to articulate themselves in an acceptable fashion and requiring that.

Stu: You talked last week about publishing the letter of the week on a topic, whatever it is, snow sculptures downtown, etc.

And the best letter we get gets its own kind of forum. And then you talked about the next three or four would kind of be aggregated or compiled into another separate kind of article?

Dave: Yes. Or added to the bottom of that letter as an additional comment. But the best letter writer gets featured at the top.

Stu: Are we training our letter to the editor writers that only the best is going to make it, we’re going with the cream of the crop?

Dave: Yeah, I think that's a good thing. And we're training them to shoot for better, more civil communication so that it's just not a bunch of name-calling.

Stu: So in essence, again, what we're saying is, 'The best will get printed. Everyone else, you had your chance.'

Dave: Well, I think that would be a model and also if you want to put a short comment on Facebook and play within the rules, you're allowed to do that as well.
 




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Stu Campaigne

About the Author: Stu Campaigne

Stu Campaigne is a full-time news reporter for BayToday.ca, focusing on local politics and sharing our community's compelling human interest stories.
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