27th August 2013
By Stefanie Chernow

The Challenge of Anonymity: Tips from the EJN for Countering Hate Speech

Stefanie Chernow

Is there a place for anonymous comments in the information age? With trolls spewing hate speech at a rate which overwhelms news community managers, several regional and national newspapers have decided to enforce a policy where users comment under their real names.

The Huffington Post, which has one of the most active online communities with over 630 million comments on their platform, announced last week it will no longer allow anonymous comments. The decision was made in the wake of dozens of Twitter death and rape threats to British freelance journalist Caroline Criado-Perez.

The Huffington Post is the most recent media outlet to join the list of newspapers to ban anonominity online, including the Miami Herald, USA Today, and The Eagle Tribune. “Far too many used the (comment) feature to spew vitriol, bigotry, obscenity, cheap shots and juvenile taunts, no matter how hard we worked to keep the conversation civil,” said Al White, executive editor of The Eagle Tribune.

In too many cases, user comments act as a vehicle for hate speech, bringing an intellectual conversation down to its lowest common denominator. Journalism.co.uk recently reported on how hate speech in news comments discourage other users from engaging in conversations. Furthermore, communities will connect the dots between negative comments and the news platform it is published on, thus minimizing journalistic credibility. Usually inflammatory comments are anonymous and users are not held accountable.

Yet despite the mounting evidence in favour of a real name policy, does the public – or at least some deserving cases – still have the right to remain anonymous in certain circumstances, or have trolls tarnished this right for everyone?

“I sympathize with the journalistic view that the right to remain anonymous is important in public debate. But at some point, some one should know who is responsible for what is being said. If not, there is the possibility of manipulation,” says Aidan White, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network.

Not everyone is a troll or a bigot, and vulnerable and marginal groups do benefit from anonymity. The key lies in how media organisations hold both themselves and their communities accountable. The EJN provides a few tips for improving the quality of online conversations:

All comments should be subjected to moderation – it is the only sure-fire way to guard against hate speech. Yet extra attention needs to given to anonymous comments, as they do tend to be more problematic.

Make the user justify commenting anonymously. “The person making the expression has a responsibility to justify anonymity,” explains Aidan White. “A user might say ‘I want to make a complaint about abuse but because of my circumstances I don’t want my name to be known.’” Having this type of justification could help prevent against false allegations while giving marginalised and vulnerable people, such as young people who are victims of abuse, the right to speak out without putting themselves further at risk.

Be transparent. In line with the work of readers’ editors and ombudsmen, the media could write a regular review of the comments it receives. It could then highlight those which do not meet their ethical standards. “This is a way of media reassuring the audience that they care about standards,” says White, “and it can be a useful way of raising awareness about particular threats, such as the dangers of hate speech and incitement to violence or hatred.”

Think multiplatform. The war of the comments is moving to the social media sphere, as more users are taking their debates to Twitter and Facebook. News organizations need to work with these large social media platforms to ensure the necessarily tools are in place to protect quality journalism.

Everyone agrees that democracy thrives when we have free speech, but the right to free expression is a line drawn around incitement to violence and hatred. These limits are now being tested in the digital world, but as new rules and standards come into play it is important that the balance between ethical speech and the rights of people to express themselves without restraint is carefully struck, particularly in a fast-paced media environment.

Photo: CC Flickr Viewminder