Some Gannett Papers Test Facebook Comments, Ban Anonymous Posts

Peter Steiner's New Yorker cartoon from 1993.

The old adage, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” may hold less true soon, at least on some newspaper sites. Gannett Blog reports that some of the large chain’s U.S. papers are moving to force commenters to use their Facebook accounts to post comments instead of stand behind their anonymous user names.

This is, apparently, being tested in two Gannett markets:

  • Fort Myers News-Press: “When I am out in the community I can always count on one question: Why do you allow people to be anonymous when they comment online? Starting later this week we won’t on the stories that appear online. We will be one of two newspapers in our company to test Facebook comments. We will test it for 60 days and evaluate the results.”
  • Des Moines Register: “Starting late Wednesday, Facebook comments will replace our existing commenting system. You will have to have a Facebook account to comment, which will eliminate use of anonymous screen names.”

Both papers in their columns point to civility and better communication as the reasoning behind this move. I get that, and it will be interesting to see how these fare. My experience as a former Gannett employee has been what trickles down through test markets often takes awhile to reach the smaller community papers, but it comes eventually. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see the newspaper giant rolling this out to more of its papers and TV stations.

Of course, there are ways to game the system and create a fake Facebook account. Heck, I actually do follow an adorable dog on Facebook, so I guess Boo could comment if he wanted. But that’s a lot of work, and it runs counter to the Facebook TOS, so you could run into issues there as well.

As a reporter, I used to open the comment section on my stories with one eye open and the rest of my face half-cringed in anticipation of the vitriol I was about to expose myself to. It’s not that I couldn’t take criticism — when valid it was great feedback and even led to angles and stories I hadn’t considered — but rather, it was that so much of what people posted anonymously on our “story chats” was completely ridiculous. Commentary on a story about a Catholic school’s new principal would degrade into insinuations about pedophiles. Stories about real estate turned into a debate about gangs or Barack Obama’s birth certificate. While the worst of the worst were removed, much of the commentary wasn’t so much offensive or libelous as much as the type of things people would never say or do in public. That’s not because they were afraid of retribution — which is a valid reason for anonymity — but because they didn’t really know what they were talking about and could post a one-off comment and never have to defend or explain it when someone questioned it. And like the Fort Myers editor, I can’t tell you how many times I personally took heat for things posted anonymously on our site. I was sent down dead-end rabbit holes by editors who read ill-informed posters missives, and I was cornered in conference rooms by public officials accused of misdeeds by strangers in those forums. Often the lament was, the paper didn’t publish anonymous letters to the editor but seemed to implicitly support them online. And while I do see some value in anonymous comments, I’ve always belonged to the school of put-up or shut-up: Stand behind what you say or don’t say it.

I’ve read some valid arguments by smart people for anonymous postings. So I’m not quick to dismiss its value entirely. But it will be interesting to see whether the discussions improve or at least the distractions decrease at these two papers. You could argue strong community managers, which other 10,000 Words posters have covered extensively, could make a big dent in improving the discourse among anonymous users. But that’s a job few small papers can afford, and most Gannett papers are small, and they’re laying off reporters and editors not creating new jobs. So in a relatively unpoliced area, putting your name and face behind what you say could improve civility. Or it could decrease interaction and be another reason people find not to visit that site. This experiment will help us see.

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