Free Speech is Guaranteed, But Is Anonymity?

Freedom of religion, freedom of the press… freedom to post comments anonymously? Recently, a number of news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Huffington Post, have announced that they are taking steps towards a new stance on anonymous comments.

We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing disparaging comments crop up now and again as we’re skimming through the feedback section at the end of an article.  But the level of vitriol is shocking – and, I think, disgusting – when a few of these comments are emphasized together as they were in a recent opinion piece by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, Online readers need a chance to comment, but not to abuse.

The New York Times also recently highlighted the issue of anonymity in the article "News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments." The Times article suggest that the most likely models of the future will be moderated comments, a tiered system that rewards on-topic commentators that reveal their names, or a democratic rating system along the lines of Digg, where the most popular comments would be elevated and others voted down. 

What’s difficult in this debate is that it’s not simply a question of readers’ rights or when and where to draw the line on mean-spirited comments.  It’s also an issue that is closely tied to the very survival of these publications.  More comments means more traffic which means more revenue.  To be sure, online news and interactions are still evolving concepts, and there is little precedent.  Did you ever base your decision to buy a print paper on the type of letters to the editor it published?  Advertisers likely also paid little attention to the letters section. 

Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, said, “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity."

What do you think?  Does allowing anonymous comments because they’re valuable for ad revenue fundamentally change the role of newspapers?  Do vicious comments reduce the value of news or are they simply to be expected as a byproduct of an open forum that ultimately enhances the quality of news?

- Contributed by Catharine Morgan. Follow her @c_morgan.