An Idaho judge weighs in on anonymous comments: Is it a blessing in disguise?

When newspapers launched websites and allowed real-time comments on articles, they hoped to establish a new marketplace of ideas.

What has developed, instead, is not as much a marketplace as a really crummy garage sale.

One where the shoppers hide behind card tables and wardrobe racks and call each other morons and idiots, socialists and fascists.

One where good questions and constructive criticism get drowned out or shouted down. The trolls usually win. What they actually win is beyond me.

I’d have no misgivings about naming names here, were there names to name. Since most commenters are anonymous, I don’t know their identities any more than you do.

Which brings us to “almostinnocentbystander,” a commenter at the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

In February, “almost” took an anonymous shot at Kootenai County Republican Party chairwoman Tina Jacobson over $10,000 missing from GOP coffers. Jacobson filed a defamation suit against “almost” in April — and took the Spokesman-Review to court as well.

On July 10, Kootenai County District Judge John Patrick Luster ordered the paper to turn over information identifying “almost.” (However, Kootenai County GOP activist Linda Cook came in from the cold Monday and claimed to be “almost.”)

Yes, the prospect of being “outed” by a judge could have a chilling effect on commenters — especially those with a compelling personal or professional motivation to stay in the shadows. But let’s keep it in some perspective here. As the Spokesman-Review’s own Shawn Vestal argues, in a terrific July 12 column, the comment boards have become little more than “a sewer of stupidity and insults and shallowness. ...

“The idea that the newspaper has to spend time and treasure defending this nonsense — not protecting a whistleblower, not battling the government for access to public records — is repulsive.”

Bingo.

And there is your other, perhaps more salient chilling effect. This legal mess could conceivably happen to any newspaper that allows and posts anonymous comments — including the Statesman. No matter how carefully a newspaper tries to monitor its comment sections, there exists some element of legal exposure.

Is the risk worth the reward, the bump in online page views?

Since this coarse online shouting match does little to enhance a newspaper’s brand as a leader of constructive community discussion, when does the whole circus become more headache than it is worth?

I know this much, from personal experience.

I do read comments at this blog, and I try to weed out the off-topic posts and personal attacks, but I respond sparingly. If a commenter raises a good, on-point question, I’ll try to respond — and if a commenter makes a factual assertion I know to be false, I’ll try to set the record straight. However, my most constructive, transparent dialogues with readers generally take place on Facebook or Twitter. I’ll go where this conversation is taking place, and, yes, I wish it occurred more often at IdahoStatesman.com.

If Luster’s ruling prods newspapers to rethink online commenting, that may prove to be a blessing in disguise.

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interesting

Interesting post. I can see the value of anonymity for personal or professional reasons. But it does allow for a lot of crass behavior. in either case, The best answer is moderating the comments section--something that likely is not financially possible. I do note that the comments on the blogs tend to be far better than comments on the articles. Maybe the extra step involved in finding them weeds out some folks.

Anonymous Commenting

As far as I am familiar with the legal precedent, the Spokesman-Review, and any site that allows users to post any sort of content, is in no way legally responsible for the content other users post to their site, as long as they make reasonable attempts to remove illegal content when requested. That doesn't change that fact that anyone can sue them anyway and cause all sorts of legal fees and hassle. That's more of a knock on our legal system than anonymous commenting though.

Back to the larger topic at hand though; I don't think it's fair to single out the comment section on any political site/blog as 'a sewere of stupidity and insults and shallowness' when the exact same statement could be applied to political ads, any of the 24 hour news networks, presidential debates and political blogs themselves. Each of these have their fair share of responsible and intelligent reporting/debate, but so do comment sections.

The point I'm trying to get at is that it's not anonymous commenting that attracts this sort of vitriol, it's the contentious topics being discussed (in addition to a excessive amount of ignorance).

Online is not unique

First, "Almost" could have easily listed her name as "Linda Smith" and made the same comments. No one would be claiming she was being anonymous.

Secondly, the online environment is not unique to anonymity or 'impersonatations' or lawsuits.

A man could easily go to the nearest bar and tell the people there that his name is Kevin Richert and he works for The Idaho Statesman.

Chances are 9 out of 10 people would not know the difference. And if he actually had a similar appearance, it would be easy to pull off. Then he could proceed to get sloshed- that's the fun part. So 'insults' and stupidity could intentionally follow.

"Kevin" would then say something implying priveleged information about a politician... and defamation occurs. What if the listening ears actually know that politician?

Then "Kevin" decides to start a bar fight. A couple swings with his favorite beer bottle onto Joe's head and then a quick dash out the door before being detained....

Guess what the police report is going to say?

Wanna guess who gets served papers?

The real Kevin has to deal with it- likely with a costly attorney and HOPEFULLY has a good alibi.

"Is it worth the risk" to be a public figure?

Much of posting dialogue

is more reminiscent of an elementary school playground than an intelligent and respectful forum for the exchange of mature and well thought-out opinions. Keyboard Warriors will always be there, hiding behind the safety of anonymity, hurling their uninformed slings and arrows and basking in their internet psuedo-celebrity. There are poster bullies that seem to be only able to improve their position by tearing down others with no regard to civility or decorum. I feel sorry for them.
I am aware of the fact that some may see hypocrisy in my post. So be it.

The metaphor you were looking for was

"fetid slough," not "crummy garage sale."

But what the heck, this is in your power, Kevin. The Statesman doesn't let unworthy muck go into print in the LTE (ahem, without verified attribution, and in limited quantity and frequency), why should you need a judge to tell you how to run your business?

Not only are you never going to keep up with the fast and loose, anything-goes style of the blogosphere, you should not want to. Moderate incoming comments. Reject the crap before the fact, not after. It slows down the repartee, but that's OK. Why host garbage, even temporarily?

Sell us ALL out, Kevin.

Then, history will repeat itself. They'll come for you!

Good article

If we are going to have free speech in this country we are going to have to accept the fact that it will include trolls, garbage mouths, liars, slanderers, libelers(?), morons and idiots. The hope is that intelligent people will be able to recognize it, dismiss it and hopefully ignore it. The very best thing that can be done to these people is to ignore them. They feed on attention and if they don't get it they starve to death. Let's starve them. Now, if public comments become personal enough to cause personal damage, i.e. slander, libel or defamation then it should be the right of the injured to call that person out. Those who use their free speech to damage others should accept the risk that they could be identified and sued. Free speech is not free, it comes with certain risks and responsibilities.

Agreed

I agree with OleManIdaho that speech which causes damage to others should be subject to libel and slander laws on this forum or any other like it. Still, I believe the anonymity provided here allows posters to openly discuss current politics without fear of retribution from neighbors, clientele, or officers and agents of the state government. If you don't believe that such retribution can and does occur, then you would fall into the category of the very naive indeed.

Bingo.

There is a reason for "anonymity"

However, everyone recognizes it does not preclude the law.

***
Imagine the different scenario...

What if someone expects anonymity but then, for no legal reason, a host of a forum were to "out" an individual and that individual suffered damages because of the 'public notice' of their identity. That sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Let's put that in a liberal perspective:

An "anonymous person" is openingly gay on a forum and only on a 'certain' forum. The newspaper anounces the true identity of that person, for whatever reason. Then, that person gets fired from a VERY lucrative job, once the employer finds out the employee is gay.

Damages?

That is a lawyer's dream.

missing $10,000

Did we ever hear any followup about the missing $10,000, whether it was actually missing and what might have happened to it?

As far as anonymous bloggers, I've been following this issue for a while. Some judges are protecting the bloggers, some are ruling that their identities need to be revealed. It isn't clear yet what the precedent is.