Recently the Squamish Chief Newspaper published an editorial titled “Crossing the Line” where the editor explains, and defends the removal of anonymous public comments regarding a previous article on the expansion of a local second-hand store. Many in the public (including myself) expressed outrage at the comments from the owner of Gelato Carina who referred to the clientel of second-hand stores as “riff-raff“, the stores don’t meet the “specific standard” for the downtown core, too many second hand stores “creates a negative stigma” and a bylaw should be created which would prevent “allowing stuff to come in we don’t want“. The comments from the owner of Gelato Carina certainly provoked a number of emotional and passionate responses from the community, some of which the editor of the Chief Newspaper felt were inappropriate and had to be deleted, including an anonymous comment suggesting a boycott of Gelato Carina. Few would argue with the need to filter/delete/censor offensive, abusive or self-serving promotional comments. But removing a comment which (apparently – I did not read the original post) did nothing else but suggest a boycott, was blatant and indefensible censorship – IMHO. Although the issue of anonymous comments is certainly a valid topic for discussion, the anonymity of a commenter is not sufficient or justifiable grounds for censorship. In my opinion, the Squamish Chief Newspaper “Crossed the Line” when they deleted a comment which simply suggested a boycott of Gelato Carina and then tried to defend this censorship on the grounds that the comment was made anonymously.

Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” (Potter Stewart)

Many of us can sympathize with the frustrations and additional work-load of  having to deal with inappropriate or self-serving comments to blogs or other online media, made by those who hide behind anonymity. But how do we create an environment where the public can openly discuss issues and contribute to the media, while also minimizing the work-load of editorial staff and the number of inappropriate or self-serving comments? How does a newspaper, how do WE, balance everyone’s Charter protected rights to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression“, while also avoiding hateful, slanderous, vitriolic or just plain stupid comments, often posted anonymously? As an ignorant writer in training-wheels, I thought I would add some of my own thoughts to this discussion and so I commented on the editorial in the Squamish Chief, and of course wrote this blog entry.

New World Order – Today’s educated, informed and “connected” public expects to be able to comment, critique and in many cases, collaborate not only through the media, but in the political and education arena’s as well. This is the reality of the “New World Order” where the public no longer passively accepts knowledge, information and the news being shoved down our throats. We, the public, now expect to be able to participate in, and contribute to, knowledge creation and the news. As one other commenter mentioned, this creates context as well as helping to reduce bias through something of a “public review process” not unlike the peer review process for academic publications. Certainly the facts and details of any particular story can also be expanded, corrected or debated through the same open and collaborative process. This is of course beneficial to the media source/outlet, as well as the public.

Engaging the Community – This open and collaborative process, when effectively deployed and managed, increases the value and often the validity of media releases, encourages the community to get involved and demonstrates a form of transparency on the part of the media. I am certainly no writer, nor do I know anything about the details of the editorial process. However, what I am absolutely certain of is that these changes in the way the public expects to contribute to, collaborate on or even vet media, scientific or political information, are here to stay. With that being said, there are of course pros, cons and the inevitable growing pains when trying to accommodate this relatively new model of public/community engagement. There are also the increased work-loads required to monitor and screen comments, especially when anonymous comments are allowed. Most news sites have had to contend with this issue and the gamut runs from no comments accepted all the way to all anonymous comments being allowed. Somewhere in between is likely the most prudent option.

Anonymity – What does the (briefly scanned) research tell us? Some people would not comment if they had to be identified. This is certainly the case if someone wishes to comment on a media release where their opinions might not be shared by, or may even be directed towards, an employer. In many cases, hiding behind a pseudonym seems to open the flood-gates for some to post hateful, insulting or just plain stupid comments. However, people who post credible information on public media sites and who are not afraid of others knowing their opinions, have no need to hide behind anonymity. In my opinion, this is where the most value lies in allowing comments – the opinions of those willing to openly and transparently present their ideas in public and where open and healthy debate is encouraged. Open, honest and collaborative dialog on important news and other information benefits us all as a society.

Identity Theft – I also realize that some people still have unwarranted and baseless fears, paranoia actually, about sharing too much information on line. Yes, there are many risks to exposing too much information online, especially for youth. But these are easily mitigated with just a bit of common-sense and a few minutes searching Google for tips on protecting your online information and identity. The value of greater public collaboration and community engagement far outweighs the minimal risks of identity theft – IMHO.

Summary Thoughts – So where do I stand on the “allow or disallow anonymous comments”? I believe the time saved by editorial staff (who have better things to do than screen comments), and the likely higher proportion of credible, fair and valid comments from those who are not afraid of attaching their names to their opinions, far outweighs any benefits realized by allowing anonymous comments. Also, free speech does not mean anything goes.  There are many decisions from the Supreme Court of Canada which support “reasonable” limits to free speech, going back at least as far as the “R v Keekstra Decision” in 1990. Utilizing technology and being able to disguise one’s identity does not give someone free rein to post hateful or offensive comments under the auspices of “free speech”. And like Vin Crosbie argues in  “Time to get tough: Managing anonymous reader comments“, we need to do more than simply switch on this technology and hope for the best. Newspapers and other media sources need to develop clear guidelines and policies on how best to engage the community with these tools.

Technology alone cannot foster a renaissance in journalism, civic involvement and comity. What we need are policies and practices to govern how our readers utilize these online technologies” (Vic Crosbie)

I believe the Squamish Chief Newspaper (and all public media) should disallow anonymous comments and ensure people use their real names with valid contact information (which is of course hidden to the public). After all, if you have an opinion on something and you hope to contribute and participate in a discussion, how can anyone expect to take you, or your opinions, seriously if you must hide behind anonymity? Most of us also expect the media to be an unbiased and transparent “reporter” of the news and other information. Well, if we expect the media to be transparent, then we should be willing to do the same thing.

…media cannot offer transparency to the readers unless the readers are also willing to be transparent.” (Vic Crosbie)

I also believe the Squamish Chief Newspaper should avoid trying to defend censorship simply on the grounds that a comment was made anonymously. Personally I do not believe that censorship can be ethically defended on those grounds alone. Especially given the fact that the Squamish Chief Newspaper comment system ALLOWS anonymous comments.

Suggestion to The Squamish Chief NewspaperDisallow anonymous comments and research a few successful “commenting policies” of other media outlets as a start to developing, or revising your own. I also invite the editor of the Squamish Chief to suggest, or even moderate a future topic of the Squamish Philosophers’ Café to debate this challenging and important issue. Hopefully this is a topic he would like to debate in an open forum as I am certain that we would all benefit from his experience and opinions. I know I would.


Anti-Social Media-The Anonymous Comment

Is there any reason to allow offensive anonymous blog comments?

Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil?

Time to get tough: Managing anonymous reader comments

The ongoing debate over anonymous comments on newspaper websites

Should Anonymous Comments be a Right?