By Scott Tibbs, August 14, 2007
Rebecca Robbins takes on one of the local newspaper's favorite boogeymen, anonymous comments on web forums and website comment sections. Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg has complained about anonymous postings before. Last year, he directly addressed criticisms of the H-T posted online "that include false statements, innuendo and unproven assertions." Zaltsberg also complained about an email that "included at least one false statement, some bizarre innuendo and false assertions that border on malicious." I responded to the editorial on this blog.
Regarding the comments posted on Herald Times Online (HTO), Robbins claims that "the biggest surprise to me has been their content. What begins as a remark about a particular item in a story often becomes the opening bid in a full-scale online shouting match."
While Robbins might have been surprised, I can't imagine that Zaltsberg or anyone familiar with commentary on local forums would expect anything different. After all, the H-T closed their Hoosier Talk forum back in 2003 after comments got very heated during the 2002 elections and were staring to heat up for 2003. The fact that Hoosier Talk was brought up in the Scott Wells libel suit probably also contributed to the demise of Hoosier Talk.
What I find laughable is that the H-T would use the space devoted to the editor's weekly column for a complaint about the H-T's own forum. This would be like someone complaining that the dishes are dirty instead of putting them into the dishwasher. No one can post on HTO unless he or she has a paid subscription to read the website. I would be surprised if HTO does not have the ability to track who is posting what. The H-T could take another step in forcing posters to register a username that would appear on each post.
Furthermore, a comment section like the one on HTO would be more difficult to monitor than a forum like Hoosier Talk. That would therefore make it more difficult to moderate postings that violate the site's terms of service. So why not reintroduce a forum using phpBB instead of a comment section under each article? Allow one or two usernames per paid subscription to HTO, and no one is anonymous to HTO staff. Posting is a privilege, not a right, and anyone who abuses that privilege can be easily prohibited from posting.
The issue of anonymity is a bit trickier. Allowing people to comment without using real names can in theory lead to more robust debate on the issues, but more often than not leads to more personal attacks, name calling, gossip and statements that either approach libel or are libelous. The Herald-Times, like most newspapers, requires that anyone who submits a letter to the editor include first and last names for publication. That doesn't apply to comments posted on HTO, but should it?
I am on the fence when it comes to anonymity. On one hand, I find it disgusting when people hide behind a mask to make personal attacks on people who use their real names, or on public figures. On the other hand, I can understand why some people do not want to use their real names on the Internet for fear of retaliation for what they say. Realistically, though, is that fear more justified in online comments than in letters to the editor? A few years ago, I had someone call me at home to say "fuck you" in response to a letter to the editor I had published that day. The coward promptly hung up, of course.
Perhaps the Herald-Times should consider forcing all who post to use a real first and last name. There are several who do that already. A few others would also take off the masks, but many more would leave. There are many other ways for one to comment anonymously, including blogs and local forums. It would certainly be interesting to see how things evolve should the H-T take that step. With the large number of politically aware people in this community, I don't see the H-T comment section drying up.
I don't have an answer. I won't condemn anonymity, because it can be used legitimately. It is also true that for every person with a justifiable reason to post under a pseudonym there are ten people who use anonymity as an excuse to be as crude or nasty as possible while never being held accountable for it in a public forum. Ultimately, the civility buck stops with a forum's administrator(s) and moderator(s). If a administrator allows a forum or comment section to degrade into a sewer, he has no one to blame but himself.
Is that mirror shined up, Mr. Zaltsberg?