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Facebook registration: mandatory for newspaper commenting?

Last week, the Vacaville Reporter announced a "new system [that] requires online commentators to post their comments via Facebook. If they are not yet a Facebook member, they will need to join Facebook and then post."

Who really cares what a small California paper is doing? Well, it's owned by MediaNews Group, which owns the Pioneer Press. And as the Reporter noted, other MNG papers are instituting the system. There are also non-MNG papers that have opted for Facebook registration as the best way to verify identities and cut down on anonymous rants.

So is it coming to the PiPress, which currently uses Topix, the third-party company whose anonymous pages and business practices are so skanky that state attorneys general took notice?

"It's one of the really good options," says Chris Clonts, the paper's Senior Editor, Online

Like the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press is expected to re-do its site this year, though Clonts terms the release date "still fuzzy." Nevertheless, he promises "much-improved commenting and moderation/troll prevention functions."

While Facebook accounts aren't impossible to fake, it's not all that common, and the ubiquitous social network is likely more up-and-up than almost all comment boards.

But of course, there's the problem of forcing people to use a site that hasn't exactly shown a reverence for privacy (or, in this reluctant user's view, user-friendliness).

"In anecdotal evidence, some users object pretty severely to doing [commenting] through Facebook," Clonts says. "Surprising that they trust us more than Zuckerberg. But it makes it very slick and it's a super-familiar interface. That scores good points with everyone else."

Requiring "real names" does bring up some perennial commenting issues, such as whether anonymity is good in some circumstances. For example, whistleblowers and other comment-section tipsters, or in the case of Gawker Media, wise-asses who have .gov addresses.

But the problem so far has been verifying real names. I suspect we'll see more papers outsourcing that to Mark Zuckerberg.

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Comments (9)

I think that newspapers should leverage their synergies, as it were, and require one simple thing of their online commenters: that they agree to allow the newspaper to send a reporter and photographer to meet the commenter in person and take a photo for the site / verify the commenter's identity.

I just don't understand why newspapers have so far felt beholden to the unverified identity/anonymous ethos on the internet, when they generally have a pretty strong opposition to it in their print publications.

@Christopher Moseng #1

"…they agree to allow the newspaper to send a reporter and photographer to meet the commenter in person and take a photo for the site / verify the commenter's identity."

Yeah, right. That will never happen, because it would be an invasion of privacy, and it would take far too much time, costing far too much money for the newspaper.

"I just don't understand why newspapers have so far felt beholden to the unverified identity/anonymous ethos on the internet, when they generally have a pretty strong opposition to it in their print publications."

They aren't beholden at all. You seem to ignore the fact that there's a huge difference between newsprint and and a story on a computer screen. When you send something to the newspaper for inclusion, you are required to put your name on it, before they would consider printing it. But with an electronic version of the newspaper, that can't be the case, since the commenting systems have no way to verify anyone's identity, nor should they.

Just because someone chooses to remain anonymous does not negate the value of their comment; only the content of their comment does that. Privacy is a right, not a privilege, and attempt to require verification before people can post a comment will fail miserably. And contrary to Mr. Brauer's statement, Facebook accounts are easy to fake, and many of them are fake, so outsourcing their comment systems to Facebook will turn many people away, without improving the quality of comments.

Mark,

I have to respectfully disagree. Using someone else's forum as a platform for publication of your opinion or comment is a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege extended by the owner of the means of publication, and historically, newspapers have restricted that privilege to people who voluntarily identify themselves (unless there is a public interest in according the speaker anonymity).

When I write a letter to the editor, or an op-ed, the paper does at least some rudimentary identity verification, and that has never been considered an invasion of privacy.

I am a great defender of online liberties, and I believe in the value of anonymity. But there is also a publisher's right to editorial control. Nothing about the internet changes this. I concede my modest proposal is maybe a little onerous and impractical, but I think there is a nugget of value there: online communities are as valuable as their signal-to-noise ratio. When the community is overrun by low-value contributions, editorial control is necessary to produce a community worth participating in.

"While Facebook accounts aren't impossible to fake, it's not all that common"

Not impossible? All you need to set up a Facebook page is an email address, and all you need to get an email address is 2 minutes on gmail or hotmail. If people are determined to comment anonymously, requiring Facebook registration will do absolutely nothing to stop them.

I expect that the real motivation here is that by using Facebook, the newspaper doesn't have to pay Topix or some other company, and Zuckerberg is glad to have them do it because it gets more people on Facebook.

I've never had much of a palate for anonymous comments, but those posted on the PiPress via Topix a couple years ago or so really set the bar at a dreadful new low. The topic was TIZA, the Islamic school in the southeast metro. Honestly, for every thoughtful comment -- reflecting a diversity of opinions -- there were at least 10 that sounded like they came right out of Mississippi, circa 1964.

Some posters would think twice about what they say and how they say it if they were required to provide their names, I'd like to think. Others wouldn't have the guts to post with their real names and would just quit. As an occasional poster here, I usually spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to say and doing some revisions before I hit the 'post' button. And I sign my name to the Strib postings I occasionally make. (I won't participate in the PiPress comments because what was meant to be a forum has simply devolved into a cesspool of misogyny and racism.)

I think the MinnPost standards laudably help keep the discourse at a higher level. It's imperfect but miles and miles above the standard that's set when anonymity is permitted. Speaking for myself, I made some impassioned comments during the peak of election season -- but never once said anything that I wouldn't have said at a coffee house or other public place (or in a letter to the editor).

At a time when we're being called upon to collectively examine discourse in our nation, and how our individual civility (or lack thereof) contributes to the tone and volume, I applaud the Vacaville newspaper for requiring postings via Facebook.

Why not? My hunch is that most posters -- or at least a lot of them -- already are Facebookers and calling upon people to be accountable for their words is imminently reasonable. (And while it's possible to get around Facebook profile standards to find a way to post under a pseudonym, it would take some time, effort and brainpower ... not entirely sure that those who post via Topix would be up to the task.)

I agree with @Dan -- It's easy to create a fake profile on Facebook. However, I assume Facebook will close fake profiles at some point eventually, right? What happens to the comments from that fake profile then? Does it remain on the newspaper's site, or is it scrubbed when the profile is gone? That could be awkward.

Facebook commenting is quite an unfortunate movement. One only needs to look at CNN Money's website to see trolls continue to take advantage by spamming the site that were "A little off topic." And, it doesn't appear CNN has had an answer to the issue either.

I used to work as a part-time Star Tribune comment moderator to make a little money on the side. Despite the efforts of a handful of intelligent contributors, most thoughtful comments were drowned out by a sea of partisan talking points shouted at each other in all caps.

Although it's easy enough to fake a Facebook account -- much like it'd be easy enough to fake your name here on Minnpost -- the fact of the matter is most trolls are extremely lazy, and even a small hurdle to overcome would keep a lot of the riffraff out.

I'm in favor of anything that makes people take a little accountability for their words.

P.S. Any whistleblower looking to make an anonymous tip should be contacting reporters directly (most put their contact info like phone number or email next to their stories online) instead of spilling the beans in a comment section.

As noted it is easy to create fake Facebook accounts and believe it or not, there are many of them.

But more concerning is the Facebook connect technology used for the comments. It is not secure and you are allowing more personal information to be collected/connected to you in ways that are hard to predict.

Maybe I'm old fashioned and private, but I don't like the idea at all.

My recommendation -- no comments allowed on news stories unless the writer wants to moderate. Same for blog, sure you'll need to trust the writer will publish comments, but it's better than the current knucklehead approach that destroys well written stories.