Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

The veil of anonymity

Online comments energize some, unnerve others

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The alias "Intangible" first appeared in the comment section after the court deemed Vince Li not criminally responsible for the beheading of Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus bound for Winnipeg in the summer of 2008. Queen’s Bench Justice John Scurfield said, after hearing that Li believed God wanted him to undertake these "grotesque" actions, that "the acts themselves and the context in which they were committed are strongly suggestive of a mental disorder."

The woman who was to become "Intangible" read the online comments below the story and shuddered at the "shocking lack of understanding of mental illness" that roiled there.

"I couldn’t contain myself," Intangible wrote in an email response outlining what commenting means to her. "So I signed up and tried to dispel some of the myths."

Since then, Intangible has become a prolific commenter on the site and regularly advocates there for the mentally ill.

"I discovered a hidden activist inside me that I never knew existed," she emailed.

Intangible knows not everyone becomes more socially responsible and engaged through online commenting. She knows that what is written below the news story, what some call "below the line," is all too often below the belt. She recognizes, as did the half-dozen other commenters surveyed for this article, that "common courtesy" is largely absent from the comment environment, that it’s a "hostile atmosphere," and that too much "viciousness" bullies its way into this virtual playground. All of those surveyed acknowledged, more or less, that anonymity, moderation processes and journalistic attitudes play fundamental roles in shaping what happens below the line.

The commenters — all of whom agreed to participate in this article only if they were identified by their pseudonyms — all recognized that those interrelated things were changing and still need to change. And all were under no illusion that an easy fix could debug this wonderfully crooked corner of the social network.

Anonymity greets online readers like a sphinx as they cross the line dividing the well-crafted news story, with its author’s name, to the messy comments, attributed to the likes of Gack, Woofers, and JustWondering. Most of those commenters admitted that anonymity played an important role in inviting incivility, but they also firmly believed that it served a vital function in creating an engaged, lively and meaningful community.

Woofers found in anonymity, among other things, a freer social space to be creative, to be provocative and to be playful. "While some comments are what I actually feel, other comments are made more in character," Woofers explained. (Only those who confirmed their gender were assigned definite gender pronouns.)

Woofers didn’t see any drawbacks to pseudonyms. In fact, Woofers argued that lifting the veil of anonymity could unintentionally undermine some of the strengths of the current "commenting dynamic." Woofers used the example of a City of Winnipeg employee who wants to offer a comment on city-related news. If she has to identify herself before sharing her insights, she might shy away for fear of reprisals from her employer.

While Duncan McMonagle, a journalism instructor at Red River College, and Free Press editor Margo Goodhand were, to varying degrees, sympathetic to such arguments, they preferred that assumed names be shed.

McMonagle suggested many anonymous online commenters have confused the freedom they experience below the line with an ersatz variety. "That kind of freedom means a lack of personal responsibility," he said. "Sure you have freedom because you’ll never have to account for your opinion. You’ll never have to respond honestly, face-to-face with somebody. That’s all that is."

Goodhand said she understood why whistleblowers might need anonymity, but generally people ought to stand by their opinions.

"There are so many avenues now. It is such an open and transparent newsroom that you can reach any of our reporters anytime: on Twitter, on email, you can Facebook them and phone them," she said. "If it is an issue of a need for anonymity, in those cases there are still tons of ways to get your opinion out and to the right people."

She continued: "With regards to the comment section itself, I’d like to see people with the courage to speak — especially when they’re being tremendously critical — as themselves. Otherwise, it’s just too easy."

Others at the paper, like Free Press online editor John White, favoured a more incremental and cautious approach to eliminating anonymity. "I’d like to first move towards a hybrid, offering the choice to use your real identity, with incentives," he wrote in an email. "There is still a value in allowing anonymous commenting."

Mariam Cook, a senior consultant for international PR firm Porter Novelli, warned against erasing alter egos. A former interaction manager at The Guardian, Cook disputes the notion that the freedom experienced by anonymous commenters is false or even of a lesser nature than "real," face-to-face communication.

"You can be more creative, if you can be whoever you want to be. Then you can actually connect to people in a different way with that persona," she said during a telephone interview from London, England. "It’s important to realize that you take cues from people in many different ways. Cues around their responses to certain arguments. Their willingness to step in and defend others. Their fairness. Their logic. Their humanity comes through in different ways in this sensory-deprived (online) environment."

She added: "When you’re trapped in, ‘I’m this gender,’ ‘I’m this race,’ ‘I’m from this town,’ ‘I’m this age,’ ... We all stereotype each other. We all make judgments about each other. But when you’re in an online forum and don’t have all those types of cues, it creates an opportunity and a space for, in some ways, a deeper and richer intimacy."

Gack may not quite see it that way. But he’s certainly invested in his alter ego. And being unable to comment on the Free Press site is a painful reminder of that. Gack is accused of making a personal attack on a columnist. He’s disputed it and is awaiting a decision. He insists they’ve got the wrong person. "I’ve got thousands of comments on that site. And I don’t conceal that I don’t agree with a lot of things that (the columnist) has to say," Gack said. "But disagreeing and making my point is not a personal attack."

Gack is by no means alone in criticizing the moderation processes. Most of those who responded to the survey had problems with it. Some suggested an open appeal process, if accused of making an abusive comment. Others proposed that clear examples of appropriate and inappropriate comments could be presented in the site’s terms and conditions.

All agreed, in one form or another, that when reporters participated in the comment section, it elevated the conversation and the level of civility. Research has confirmed this. And Keith Bilous, president and CEO of ICUC Moderation Services Inc., whose Winnipeg-based company handles the approximately 2,000 abuse reports per month generated by Free Press readers, didn’t doubt it. "Besides, if journalists start cultivating their own following and build their own brand in a social space... I would argue that, from the Free Press standpoint, they have a stronger asset," Bilous said. "You start having your journalists and columnists doing this and the strength of the paper, and the strength and the quality of the community that’s a part of it, only goes up."

Goodhand has urged her editorial staff to engage commenters more.

"But I can’t make them," she said. "Some of them are so hurt by what is said. They look at a bunch of negative comments and say, ‘These people are mean and vindictive. I don’t want to get involved.’ "

On the other hand, she noted, "the brave reporters who have waded in and showed themselves as people, with thoughts and feelings and a sense of humour, have gotten a better response."

Intangible understands probably better than most what can be unlocked when reporters dare to cross the line from static news to an active community of commenters. By way of example, she recounted a letter written to Miss Lonelyhearts in which a woman described symptoms of severe depression. The comment section exploded. Much of it with well-intentioned opinions, but wrongheaded and possibly harmful, Intangible said. She and a few other commenters, "who had obviously been through (major depressions), jumped in to reach out to this woman."

Miss Lonelyhearts posted in the comment section, "saying she’d contacted the letter writer and suggested that she read the online comments." Hours later, the letter writer thanked the commenters and assured them she’d seek help.

"It’s very seldom that our comments make a difference to someone," Intangible wrote. "But this was a case where they did, and it was satisfying to be a part of that."

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