Huff Post's New Commenter Policy and the Perils of Anonymity

New commenters will have to verify their identities with internal Huff Post staffers. From there, they'll be able to use pseudonyms and handles as their public personas. Meanwhile, all existing anonymous commenters will be grandfathered into the new system, and will continue to enjoy their anonymity, if they choose to continue doing so.
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New commenters will have to verify their identities with internal Huff Post staffers. From there, they'll be able to use pseudonyms and handles as their public personas. Meanwhile, all existing anonymous commenters will be grandfathered into the new system, and will continue to enjoy their anonymity, if they choose to continue doing so.
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At first, it seemed like a good idea. Arianna Huffington announced recently that her hugely successful site, The Huffington Post, would no longer allow anonymous commenters. Before I go any further, I hasten to fully disclose that I've been a blogger for Huff Post since 2005, and owe much of my political writing career to the generous opportunity offered to me by Arianna and especially founding editor Roy Sekoff.

That said, the more we learn about how this new policy is going to be handled, the more I doubt whether it will be effective.

It turns out that new commenters will have to verify their identities with internal Huff Post staffers. From there, they'll be able to use pseudonyms and handles as their public personas. Meanwhile, all existing anonymous commenters will be grandfathered into the new system, and will continue to enjoy their anonymity, if they choose to continue doing so. This will certainly eliminate drive-by trolls who pop into a thread to post something obnoxious, then leave. But the new system will continue to offer public anonymity for commenters and all of the commensurate immunity from accountability.

Because I came from the print world, I've always been a fan of the old-school newspaper policy of not publishing any anonymous letters to the editor -- in this case, comments. Providing a full name, address and phone number with each letter brought heft and a sense of accountability to the process. Not only that, but it tended to weed out the crackpots. Not always, but often. On the other hand, the internet's long-held traditional use of pseudonyms, specifically in the arena of news and political analysis, has, I believe, hurt the quality of the discourse.

The entire point of requiring the usage of legitimate full names is to force commenters to be more judicious in what they write and how they comport themselves. It doesn't eliminate the problem, but it mitigates it. It forces commenters to more seriously evaluate what they plan to write, knowing that internet materials are archived in a way that's almost impossible to undo. Personally, I've always used my real name in all of my digital endeavors. In hindsight, I'm not always proud of my older comments and posts, but at least I had the courage of my convictions to include my name with each one instead of hiding behind the protective shield of anonymity. Now, readers can hold me accountable for what I've written in the past, and they occasionally do exactly that.

There are of course many fair reasons why anonymity, or pseudonymity, is helpful. Some have argued that it protects those who live under oppressive regimes; it protects children and other vulnerable participants whose use of real identities would otherwise endanger them. Again, fair enough. Likewise, many people are forbidden from commenting or publishing online using their real names due to work restrictions and rules. But isn't that more of a problem with restrictive employer rules than website comment policies?

Let's go back to the original question: will it work? One study out of South Korea showed that the elimination of anonymous commenting only reduced malicious posts by 0.9 percent. Another study, however, by Carnegie Mellon’s Daegon Cho and Alessandro Acquisti, determined that by requiring real names, malicious posts were reduced by 30 percent. That's a massive discrepancy.

My career in digital media spans almost 20 years, and the worst behavior I've ever witnessed has come from behind masks of anonymity. Purely from my anecdotal experience, real name commenters are considerably less obnoxious than anonymous commenters. I wonder how many commenters using real names have sent rape threats, or worse, to other commenters (or bloggers)? Of course that's not to say all anonymous commenters engage in such behavior, but it's safe to assume that most of that kind of behavior comes from anonymous commenters.

Physical threats aside, politics isn't necessarily for the faint of heart (see the story of Senator Charles Sumner, for example, or any random debate in Parliament). The real question is whether anonymous commenters should be taken seriously as both participants in the conversation and delivery vehicles for ideas. Can they, or, better yet, should they be trusted to inject credible information or ingenuous opinions into the debate? Leveling the playing field, with a requirement for verifiable full names, will certainly help to weed out the trolls, but it will also have a positive impact on mitigating wrongness. No one wants to be wrong, and I suspect it's easier for "darthfrodo69" to thoughtlessly circulate misinformation than someone whose real name and real reputation are attached to each and every word.

Don't get me wrong, though. I don't have any sort of visceral distrust or animosity toward anonymous commenters. In fact, one of the contributors on my blog, Mr. Brink, uses a pseudonym due to professional considerations (I know his real name). Furthermore, I have no intention to change the comment policies here. We have far fewer commenters at The Daily Banter than does The Huffington Post, so we can very easily weed out the idiots who ruin it for other more thoughtful and informative commenters, anonymous or otherwise.

But it's valuable to have this discussion, especially since we all gather to discuss serious political matters and as such credibility is monumentally important. I will always take more seriously the word of someone who uses his real name, and less seriously the word of an anonymous commenter, at least until the anonymous commenter has earned my trust.

Perhaps this should be the middle ground. Leave the comment policies as-is, but to proceed with the caveat that anonymity is often exploited for nefarious ends.

Meanwhile, I have no idea what Huff Post hopes to achieve with this new commenting policy. It seems like it'll add a heaping layer of bureaucracy onto the comment-registration process while only solving one problem: drive-by trolls. Everything else is basically unchanged, and therefore I'm reasonably sure that the comment threads there will continue to be an insufferable wasteland of cackling screechers -- of skulduggery and brain-boiling insanity. And I will continue to resist the urge to descend into those soul-crushing pits of despair, with or without the new policy.

Bob Cesca is the managing editor for The Daily Banter, the editor of BobCesca.com, the host of the Bubble Genius Bob & Chez Show podcast and a Huffington Post contributor.