"Real name" comments on news websites - the up and the downside

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 25 May 2010

Aside from the paywall, one of the interesting things about the new Times and Sunday Times sites is the insistence that comments have to be left using real names. At the same time, The Independent has revamped their comment system, and also appears to asking for real life identities.

Actually, the two are doing something slightly different.

By relying on OAuth social registration, The Independent has pushed back the burden for protecting them against sock-puppetry onto Twitter, Facebook et al. It isn't that you can't create a false identity on these services, but you can be pretty sure that the software engineering man hours being devoted to defend against spammy registration by these companies is way more than The Indy could manage. Indeed, given the problem the site has suffered with spam, it is obvious that community moderation is severely stretched at the paper.

The Times and Sunday Times have a distinct advantage over anybody else trying to verify real life identities in the news space. They are (or will be) taking payment. You can fake a Twitter account without much effort - it is a lot harder to fake an identity that can also manage to cough up the £1 daily entrance fee to The Times community areas. For that reason alone, I suspect that it will be easier for the News International titles to make this work and get the users to stick to it.

One of the arguments for making people use their real identity is that they will (hopefully) behave better online. You can see why it makes for an attractive argument for trying to drive up the quality of debate and discussion on a news website. There is definitely an editorial downside to forcing all commenters to use real names though.

Would, for example, an article about the current debate about anonymity for those accused of rape attract powerful contributions to the debate like this, if the commenter had to use their real Facebook identity instead of 'gherkingirl'?

"I was raped by someone with a rich powerful politically connected relative and I was terrified to report for fear of it getting into the papers and being accused of slandering the family. It took 3 months to pluck up the courage to do so, by which time the forensice evidence was gone. Despite my attacker confessing multiple attacks to me, he wasn't even formally questioned and remains free to attack at will, no doubt bolstered by the feeling of 'having got away with it'. If I had been confident that the details wouldn't have got into the press, I would have reported immediately and who knows? He might have been punished and I would have been saved some of the extra stress and fear I suffered."

18 Comments

There are advantages and disadvantages to every approach.

The Times' approach does go a long way towards preventing sock puppetry. Having a verified account doesn't mean that the users must be compelled to use their real names on the website. They could be given the option of choosing a pseudonym which would protect their real identity while also providing a persistent personality that would be recognisable to other users.

It'd be interesting to test whether using real names in addition to paid accounts provides much extra defence against mischief online over paid accounts only.

In fairness, in this Media Guardian piece there is a quote suggesting that the sites 'would only consider allowing users to post anonymously if they had a real reason to protect their identity', so there may be a path into that. It doesn't look like pseudonyms will be tolerated at first though.

I don’t have a problem with a mainstream site knowing my full name, perhaps even some more personal details if it really satisfies them that I’m a human. I do think requiring this to be published is a step beyond that which is necessary for no apparent gain.

Sockpuppetry is a sensible argument for verifying accounts. “People using their real names are better behaved”, on the other hand strikes me as a straw man, and seems a bit… y’know… sinister.

And who gets to decide whether it is a "real" reason for protecting identity?

Requiring a full name will stymie discourse, it's as simple as that. If you're unlucky enough to have a relatively uncommon name, anything you say will also be instantly searchable forever, and this could lead to far too much self-censorship.

Perhaps the press and media should lead in supplying 'real names' and stop the practice of 'a source close to the government' etc. If the mass media can use anoninmity, why not the general public?

The only way to create a pleasant community online that I've seen work is brutal moderation. If people are trolling, ban them and delete the comments. Real names won't solve the problem, though it's a good step that The Times recognises it has a problem.

Jim Rossignol, who writes for the lovely Rock Paper Shotgun, has said this:

...much of the web is rude, thoughtless, or chauvinistic. That’s often true of Rock, Paper, Shotgun too, but we’ve gone much further than most other communities in actively cracking down on it. Rather than rely on a crowd-based system of voting comments and up and down, we’ve opted to curtail free speech and employ massive deletions. Create an atmosphere in which trolling and idiocy is not tolerated at all, and it starts to recede.

I do wonder if the newspapers who find that they have awful people posting below their stories have to take some of the blame themselves. If you publish, as most papers do, columnists who serve no real purpose beyond provocation, who seem to delight in their own unsavoury views, then it can't be too much of a surprise when your readers join in, thinking this is an acceptable way to conduct an argument.

Some feedback on Alan's comment on Twitter:

@iainmhepburn says: "Interesting take. But what about where the articles themselves aren't provocative, but the fanbase it engages is?"

@megpickard says: "this is Meg's second law of commenting: 'if you commission provocative material, you can't be surprised when people are provoked'"

In my experience, the picture is more mixed. Even though forcing people to use their full names tend to reduce the amount of malicious and racist or sexist comments, there are still many people who happily write such comments.

In Norway, many news sites require people who want to comment to register for a profile with the site using their mobile phone numbers. After 9/11 all mobile phones in this country have to be registered to a personal identity number similar to the National Insurance no in the UK (the exception being phones registered on companies).

This means that when people leave comments, and I've worked both as a citizen journalism editor and as a moderator, we usually know who they are. Some sites still enable them to use pen names, some don't, but even when people comment using their real names some can still be quite abusive.

This, I think, partly has something to do with who comments. One editor I work for likes to say the most abusive commenters often are men in their fifties and sixties, often on benefits, who're not very well versed in online culture/ netiquette / the impact such online comments can have.

I think the guy Jo Geary did a video interview with while she was at The Birmingham Post is quite typical, and I'm often glad my late grandfather never logged on to the web. I loved him to bits, but, a former war sailor, he'd probably demonstrate exactly this kind of behaviour while being blind to the consequences (as in: how it came across, the people he'd upset, how it could come to haunt him in his real life).

“People using their real names are better behaved”, on the other hand strikes me as a straw man... except all the evidence shows that they do behave better.

Media UK has been using real names for a number of years now; and the standard of discussion in the discussion areas is considerably higher than equivalent forums (Digital Spy, for example). The quality is now so good, we no longer have to bother with any moderation.

As the site's owner, I saw some horrid things going on when we allowed people to hide behind pseudonyms. Thank goodness we no longer do that.

Wanted to clarify this a little - as I started the whole thing off.

At the moment, on thetimes.co.uk it is actually possible to set a screen name if you know where to look, but it's not something we're promoting.

We want to encourage readers to use their real names and devalue the use of pseudonyms. We believe this will improve the standard of debate.

However, there are some situations where people do want to change their name for reasonable reasons. i.e. some people generally use their middle name (like my Dad, for example)

We're working on it...

This can only be a good thing. There is too many 'keyboard' warriors out there with out the courage of conviction to post using their own names.

Ralph

I agree with Alan, "trolling, ban them and delete the comments". It seems it is the only way to go when trying to create a community.

I always use my real name when commenting, as I have nothing to hide, and yes, it does encourage me to treat others with respect and dignity. I never go on about politics or religion as it offends many and people judge you for it, fairly or not.

That was indeed me, but I did leave my name, which is Matt Klein. Your comment form did not like my name for some reason. Sorry.

Martin, my user name is SenseiMattKlein everywhere on the web. It has nothing to do with a keyword, it is how people know me. I post the same name and photo on every website that allows it--it is part of my brand. In fact it would probably be Matt Klein if it were not a popular name. I got tired of being mattklein89. Martin, I didn't put "kids karate expert" as my name, so what is the big deal? My name is there for all to see.

Fair enough Martin, if I were you I'd probably be sick of the spammers as well. I have a relatively new site, which has not achieved a high page rank, but even so, I get my share of spammers. Very few leave their actual name. I enjoy the subjects that are presented on your blog and find it interesting and informative.

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