Karen Peterson

Facebook commenting eliminates anonymity, ‘trolls’

Are you now the Face Book Tribune?”

That question came in an email last week from a reader trying to post comments on one of our online blogs. The reader was required to register first with Facebook, which meant typing in a real name instead of an anonymous handle. The reader didn’t like it.

We’ve been experimenting with this Facebook requirement for one reason only: Our hope it would clean up the conversations people have with one another on our website. At least so far, it has.

A handful of readers has expressed dissatisfaction with this new approach, but dozens of others are thanking us.

We began allowing reader comments years ago, hoping we could host a thoughtful community conversation about our stories and the issues of the day. While commenters could register using their real names, almost none of them did. That anonymity resulted in commenters with handles like Beer Boy and dirtydan54 maligning other commenters or the sources of stories. “Trolls” chased away more reasonable minds with their personal attacks and overwrought rhetoric.

We tried posting rules of civility. We allowed readers to block offensive comments and send them into a holding file for review by our editors. We block people who repeatedly violate our rules. And we sometimes turn off comments on stories we know will invite trouble – often those about crime or race or sexual orientation.

But refereeing those disputes takes hours away from our core mission – bringing you more stories about our community. So we decided to see what would happen if we required people to use their real names. While not a perfect system, Facebook helps us do that by weeding out pseudonyms and encouraging people to post their pictures.

Our experiment began with Facebook registration on the Biz Buzz blog, and we’ve since added it to our restaurant blog, TNT Diner, and to our Political Buzz blog. The sheer number of comments is down, but the tone and level of the conversation has improved. Users appear to feel more comfortable expressing their opinions when they’re not being sniped at by a handful of anonymous bullies who want to dominate every conversation.

A growing list of other news sites, from the Los Angeles Times to the Vancouver Columbian has made the switch to Facebook commenting. Editors from our parent company, McClatchy, are studying the matter, and at this point, they like what they see with Facebook.

We’ll be moving more of our news and features blogs this summer to Facebook-only commenting. Some readers have told us they would use their real names, but don’t want to be forced to join Facebook. We’ll keep looking for a system that allows us to do that, but for now this is the best we can find.

The Disqus commenting system on our main website stories doesn’t allow for Facebook-only registration, so at least for now anonymous commenters have plenty of places to post their thoughts at thenewstribune.com.

The anonymous commenter who wrote our publisher, Dave Zeeck, last week put himself (or herself) in the same class as “such other nasty, or at least thought so by some, anonymous commenters as Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.”

Zeeck wrote back: “I doubt that the founding fathers, even when going under an assumed name, used the language or wallowed in the stupidity that you find commonly on newspaper website comments and other website comments in America today. It’s ugly, it’s nasty, and is generally not worth reading.

“Anonymous comments end up being a cesspool of invective with very little material that’s either civil or intelligent. If people have something to say in the public arena they ought to have the guts to disclose who they are when they say something.”

If you have concerns about this change – pro or con – please get in touch with me. And feel free to use your real name.