Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tie online comments to registered accounts

The Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Mass. has implemented a policy to discourage obnoxious commenting on its online discussion threads: charge a one-time fee of 99 cents through a valid credit card and attach the user's name as it appears on that card to all comments the user makes, along with the user's community.

Registrants must acknowledge that under state and federal law, they are legally responsible for any comments they post. Posters who violate the paper's guidelines will be banned from the site.

According to publisher Oreste P. D'Arconte, the policy was put in place "to eliminate past excesses that included blatant disregard for our appropriateness guidelines, blind accusations and unsubstantiated allegations."

Having observed just such excesses on the Topix.net site, which links online commenting to MediaNews Group newspaper articles, I would like to see far wider use of mandatory registration for online commenting.

Online threads too often degenerate into hostile back-and-forth exchanges between two or more combatants -- to the detriment of civil discourse, which rapidly takes a steep declivity. The resulting "dialogue" frequently bears no relevance to the subject of the article.

Anonymous posters wield personal attacks against the authors of letters or articles, against the authors of other online posts and even members of the off-line community.

The authors of the articles or the subjects of these posts won't do themselves any favors if they attempt to respond; they will merely perpetuate hostilities. As journalist and media strategist Steve Yelvington succinctly advises in his four do's and three don'ts about story commenting for reporters, "Don't feed the trolls."

I wonder why these personal attacks aren't treated as cyber-bullying. Being unable to respond without perpetuating hostilities really limits available recourse for the victim of an online attack.

A determined user can rapidly inflict as much damage as possible, because as rapidly as viewers "flag" an abusive post for removal by a moderator, the user can reinsert the allegations across multiple threads of dialogue. Since the user doesn't have to leave a name, there is no accountability requiring the user to back his or her allegations with facts.

Online postings can violate the law. A Lake County Sheriff's Office veteran, now no longer employed, is being investigated by the California Department of Justice for unlawful distribution of official department records. The investigation concerns a records and incident management system report -- only authorized for law enforcement -- that was copied onto media Web sites.

In light of these many abuses, I think it perfectly reasonable to tie a registered-user account to a person's comments. There is nothing more draconian about this policy than to subject online posting to the same level of disclosure that is required of a letter to the editor. I don't view this as a limitation upon freedom of speech.

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