Image for Tasmanian Times & Anonymity of comments

It was recently raised on another thread (see comment below) that Tasmanian Times (TT) should prevent people posting comments under pseudonyms.

TT disagrees, though perhaps more for the sheer practical problems of implementing a ‘no anonymity’ policy than any other reason.

The current TT code of conduct states:

Pen names: As far as possible, we prefer people to contribute comments under their own real name. Tasmanian Times accepts that some good-faith contributors prefer to use a pen name. We also acknowledge that it is impossible to prevent people from registering under what appear to be real names using valid email addresses. 

However, we ask that where people who work for private companies, government agencies or political parties post comments in work time promoting their employers’ policies, then they should be up-front about disclosing who they work for. Where we become aware that people are using anonymity to peddle their employers’ views without disclosure, we will err on deleting the comments.

In his comment below Peter Henning raises some valid points about the disadvantages of allowing comments to be submitted under pseudonyms.

TT’s current policy embodies three elements:

Our preference for people to submit comments under their own names;

An acknowledgement of the practical problems of a mandatory policy of ‘real names’ only policy; and

A clear statement that where editors become aware that where anonymity is being abused comments will be deleted.

Could TT make use of real names mandatory?

The argument that TT should make the use of real names mandatory for comments rests on the assumption that it would be practical to implement and that this could be done in a time-efficient manner. It is worth noting that TT publishes between 20,000 and 30,000 comments a year, with perhaps a quarter of these coming from people unknown to the editors. In a year there would probably be comments from perhaps at least five hundred new anonymous people.

To submit a comment to TT the software the site runs on requires a user name and an email address. The name and the email address may be real or made up.

At present, the only information which could be used for authentication purposes is the email address. So editors could email a new commenter to test whether the address was valid. However, as a valid email address can be created for a pseudonym, that alone is no proof that a comment submitted under that name is the same name as the real person writing it.

Additional information to disclose identity would be required. Assuming it was technically feasible at low cost to require more information, what evidence would suffice? The obvious ones would be a phone number and/or a street address. Implicit in seeking this information is the assumption that scarce editorial time could be diverted to be checking out the veracity of the information.

But neither a phone number nor a street address is proof of identity. ‘Fred Nurk’ could submit a comment under the name of ‘Bill Bloggs’ with a valid phone number and a street address. TT editors simply do not have the time to phone over 500 new anonymous commenters. But even if we did, ‘Fred Nurk’ could simply pretend to be ‘Bill Bloggs’ and we would be none the wiser. A valid street address is even less useful in establishing the real identity of a commenter.

The only practical way of implement a stricter policy on anonymity without increasing the workload on already overloaded editors would be to open less articles to comments.

Given the significant practical problems of implementing a stricter policy, TT considers the current policy strikes the right balance.

When TT surveyed readers a few years back the primary concern raised in relation to comments was about the need to be far stricter in not publishing comments which played the person and not the ball. This is what TT editors have sought to do. While we don’t claim to have perfected the art of moderating comments, we think we are getting better at it.

An edited version of Peter Henning’s comment ...

What’s the world coming to when anonymity on that basis is given free rein?  I’ll tell you. Anna Funder writes about it very well in Stasiland.

In relation to the editorial policy of TT re anonymity I regard it as intrinsically lacking in natural justice and eliminating an equal playing field for people or organisations to be able to hide behind anonymity to attack those who write under their own names.

Further, it should go without saying that any hint by those seeking to justify anonymity by suggesting that those who write under their names are using pseudonyms, should be stopped in its tracks at the source.

It should never be allowed to happen. 

It is also clear that in adopting a liberal policy in relation to anonymity, TT should be aware that they have deliberately weakened their claim that commentary is a level playing field, for they have eliminated the right of those who write under their own name to know who their attackers are. That is inherently unfair and unjust.

TT would also be aware that their policy enables the use of the site by vested interests and political organisations across the board to promote their agenda without identifying themselves, against the interests of transparent and open discussion, and therefore against the public interest.

It is a matter of proper standards, of ethics, of democratic principle and transparency.

TT does have the opportunity to think more carefully about how it enables anonymity to be used in the public interest, for it is an issue which - like many others - needs to ensure the protection of whistleblowers while eliminating the freeloaders and those who seek to hide from the pressures and accountability of those they would criticise and attack.

Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a comment posted by Peter Henning on another thread. To avoid a comment thread on forestry to be dominated by a debate over TT’s comments policy we felt it better the issue was addressed separately here.

Thankyou again … for all your gifts to enable further development of Tasmanian Times. An update of Expression Engine technology is in train. We are also in the process of re-locating Share buttons and adding Videos (top of right-hand column), where by clicking on the video button you will see the archive of Nick Mooney’s amazing vids of Peregrine Falcons ...

• Mungo Jerri-Can in Comments: Here’s a suggestion. The Tas Times should close down for 12 months. 12 months offline might give correspondents & editors time to cool off & perhaps reflect on the how the site has improved/detracted from their lives. 12 months offline might give some correspondents for whom EVERY debate is played for sheep stations a little time to cool off. 12 months offline might allow time for us all to reflect on our own hypocrisy & stupidity. It might allow breathing space for broken friendships to be repaired, for people to be able to walk down the street of their town without worrying about running into that person with whom they are having a bitter online. Think of it as you would a liver detox. :)

• Luke Martin in Comments: Tasmanian Times has always aspired to provide a credible alternative to the mainstream media. It should at least meet, if not aspire to a higher standard than the commercial media outlets. The Mercuy has successfully and painlessly implemented a policy requiring individuals to leave an address or contact when posting a comment, and I think it’s dramatically cleaned up its forums. Tasmania Times should at least do the same. I suggest more people might be prepared to contribute articles and comments to this forum if they know they’re not then at the mercy of a bunch of anonymous antagonistic comments. The fear of retribution thing I think is a cop out. There is a clear process for whistle blowing through this and other media outlets that protects identities. Otherwise if you’re not prepared to leave your name i think you are either not certain of the accuracy of your statement, not personally committed to what you’re actually saying, or simply having a non-constructive gutless vent. Whatever the case I don’t believe a credible media source should encourage it anymore on this forum than it would encourage anonymous trolling on Twitter.

• Philip Lowe in Comments: The use of a pseudonym dilutes the content of a post, ie Mungo Jerry no 14. Tassie Times is an example of some of the best and free’est open and honest journalism in the world. Let the people speak. Leave it as it is. We can spot the ‘spinners’

• Mike Moore in Comments: As associate editor of The Mercury nearly 30 years ago I helped introduce the policy of not publishing letters from writers who wanted anonymity. Mainly, it was an attempt to be fair to those criticised as I believe it is axiomatic that victims should know the identity of their accuser. I still hold that view. I admit, however, it was relatively simple back then to check the identity of letter writers; not so now with 24-hour access to news sites and regular, often constant, updates. I truly do not know how a little organisation such as Tasmanian Times could check on all those who want to contribute opinions. Consequently, and in the interests of fairness, I believe TT should no longer publish letters to the editor. A simple and elegant solution to the problems caused by those who believe they need to remain anonymous. Mike Moore, Hervey Bay, long-time retired from journalism, thank Christ.

• Andrew Ricketts in Comments: Thankyou Ed. for Post #17. Regarding Mungo Jerri-Can Post #14: Avoidance is a poor strategy, which in the main simply does not work. Tasmanian Times should be valued more highly than to attempt its demise in the name of a liver detox. Indeed regarding the issue of broken friendships, I am astounded that the good and impartial Tasmania Times website has been misconstrued as a breaker of friendships. The people who claim to have managed to achieve a breaking down of friendships via Tasmania Times, would probably have managed to achieve such a result anyway, if they were being honest with themselves. I agree with Ted Mead (post #28) …

Steve in Comments: … I have noticed, since moving to Tasmania, that who you are is very important to locals. Questions about where you live, who you are related to, who owned your property/car/wife before you, who bred your dog etc, etc. Finally, when they realise you are another interloper from the mainland with no local connection, they give up and classify you as of no interest except as a potential victim of overcharging.