Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

How to handle anonymity and authenticity in your commenting platform

Have you ever wondered if there is value in commenters identifying themselves? Or do you struggle with verifying the facts and stories your commenters post? How can we authenticate what they say if we don’t know who they are?

In the previous section, I highlighted research showing commenters are more civil when commenting on Facebook and less civil when their comments are anonymous. Many websites have started requiring readers to register if they wish to comment.

In APME’s survey, news organizations that accepted anonymous comments and those that did not were about split, with the former at nearly 46 percent and the latter at nearly 54 percent.

Research suggests linking a commenter to his social media profile can cut down on incivility. Is this the solution, or a “quick fix,” asks Dooling, a community strategist who has worked with The Huffington Post, Salon.com and Yahoo.

“The better thing to do is to verify what someone knows, not the name someone goes by. Our fear of anonymity is an extension of our fear of the unknown,” she wrote. “To enable real names for all commenters, you leave your civil readers open to cyber-bullying on multiple outlets, and real-life danger and you’ve mistakenly created a dangerous and antagonizing forum.”

Dooling discusses what Reddit’s “r/science” subreddit forum did to fix the “spread of misinformation” being posted, while still allowing its commenters to remain anonymous. r/science raises comments posted by scientists and known researchers to highlight meaningful and informed discussions.  A member must have a degree in one of the related fields of study and must send moderators a photo of their diploma, a verifiable email address or a business card. All proof is only seen by moderators, and it is never made public.

However, as discussed earlier, anonymity can leave websites subject to trolls. Additionally, as Popular Science noted, studies have shown comments can influence readers’ perception of the news.

In a recent experiment, Kevin Wallsten, associate political science professor at California State University, and Melinda Tarsi, assistant political science professor at Bridgewater State University,  found that Internet users became “significantly more negative” toward USA Today when “exposed to a story” with an anonymous comments section.” Furthermore, they found that it did not matter whether the comments praised or criticized the media, the negativity remained.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

The American Press Institute

Our mission

We help transform news organizations for an audience-centered future.

Our programs for publishers focus on four things:

  • 1. Understand your audience
  • 2. Get your audience to pay
  • 3. Transform your culture
  • 4. Do your best journalism
  • Find out more about API »

API solutions for publishers

What we can do for you

API offers a suite of original tools and services for solving the biggest challenges in news:

  • Decide what beats to cover and how
  • Identify and develop the skills you need
  • Assess and improve your culture
  • Drive more reader revenue
  • Drive loyalty through accountability journalism
  • Make analytics work for you
  • Contact us to find out how »