This week the Vanguard Editorial Board had a lengthy discussion on the possibility of eliminating anonymous comments. As our longtime readers know, this is a topic that has come up from time to time and we have often contemplated making a change, but for a variety of reasons we have never done so.
The sentiment of the board was overwhelmingly that we should make the change. I am still a bit reluctant for a variety of reasons.
When the Vanguard was founded in 2006, one of the reasons that it was created with anonymous commenters (at the time we did not even require registration), was to create a safe space where people could comment on critical issues facing our community without fear of retribution.
However, by the end of 2009, it was clear that things were going to have to change as we had a very contentious Measure R vote on Wild Horse and the comment section had become toxic. First we imposed required registration which, for the most part, ended the practice of people posting under multiple names in the same article. We also brought on Don Shor to act as moderator, which has greatly improved the climate.
So why are we contemplating change?
Increasingly, my belief is that many people hide behind that veil of secrecy to attack people by name, under the cloak of anonymity. We have seen this play out recently in an egregious way where, in two articles at least, anonymous posters were able to criticize in a public forum people by name without the real ability of those people to respond.
In one case, the result is that the individual who submitted the article will never do so again. In the other case, it may have chased other people from coming forward on complaints against the school district – to the detriment of the mission of the Vanguard and the determent of community input, in my view.
Supporters of anonymous comments believe that the practice has allowed the Vanguard to remain a vital forum, and they point to the decrease in participation on the Enterprise since they went to Facebook log ins. That is certainly an area of concern for me.
However, there are two arguments against that. The first is that it may be the Facebook interface itself that has caused the problem. The other is that there wasn’t a huge commenting community on the Enterprise to begin with, and Vanguard articles may be more conducive to eliciting feedback than Enterprise articles.
Furthermore, while the number of comments is generally robust, the number of regular commenters is low. There are a core of posters who have well over 1000 comments, another group have between 100 and 1000, and finally there is a group of infrequent commenters. But we are talking about less than 50, and in most articles less than 20 commenters overall.
I heard at the meeting on Wednesday from several board members that their circle of contacts were reluctant to get involved in discussions because they believe that a small number of anonymous posters will attack them without their having the ability to respond in kind.
When we solicited comments through the Vanguard Morning Newsletter, there were similar comments. We are hearing over and over again that people are reluctant to engage on the Vanguard due to attacks or fear of attacks from anonymous posts.
As one person put it to me, they feel that if someone attacks them under their real name, they can respond. If someone attacks them behind a cloak of anonymity, they cannot. As a result they have chosen to no longer participate. A view of the variety of commenters from a few years ago finds a large and growing number of people who have simply chosen not to participate.
This comment to us seems to sum up that view quite nicely: “I was initially very supportive of anonymous comments on the Vanguard, and I still support the idea in general. But it seems as though the Vanguard has attracted a small and dedicated group of commenters who make a lot of personal attacks and otherwise contribute very little of substance. It’s really unpleasant dealing with an onslaught of that, and I do find myself commenting less and/or being less inclined to send things to the Vanguard.”
Another person: “I don’t participate now. One reason is the nastiness of several anonymous posters. Yes, I would be more likely to join in if real names were used.”
Will there be more participation if we eliminate anonymous posters? I have a degree of skepticism. I see the nature of the comments on the Enterprise and I’m not clear that they are less attacking. There does seem to be an inherent aversion to the idea of an anonymous attack and I am increasingly dismayed when I see anonymous posters using personal information about non-anonymous people to carry out their attacks.
Want to save anonymous posting? Some have suggested filters and other devices to crack down harder on violations of comment policy. Others have suggested that people simply grow a thicker skin. The latter is a non-starter, the former puts the burden on us.
At this point it is going to take a workable proposal to save anonymous posting because I believe the mission of the Vanguard is being harmed by the content of anonymous people’s postings.
I’m still willing to hear people out.
—David M. Greenwald reporting