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Should online comments be anonymous or require identification?

I've been kicking around the newspaper business long enough to remember when public discourse was mostly civil and people who wanted to express their personal opinion in response to something they read would sign their names.

No credible newspaper ever published anonymous letters to the editor. If it wasn’t signed, it got thrown in the round file. Newspapers went further by requiring contact information – addresses and phone numbers – so an editor could verify that the person named did indeed write the letter.

I’m glad we still publish three to five letters from readers every day, and more when a controversial issue emerges. And it’s a relief to know that so many readers of The Olympian are still willing to stand up for what they believe, without fear of identifying themselves.

These days, there’s this thing called the Internet, which is becoming a popular method of delivering the news, information and advertising we gather for a growing audience. But online journalism came with a new ethic about public discourse: the almost universal expectation of anonymity.

As one newspaper reporter recalled recently, a New Yorker cartoon published as the Internet just started booming featured two dogs. One dog says, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The readers of The Olympian and other newspapers online can now post comments without the same requirements made of letter writers. Comment posters are allowed to remain anonymous and that’s creating some problems.

Newspapers are finding that the first several comments posted after a story usually offer some reasoned opinion or correct some factual error. These initial posts provide some insight useful to other readers.

Then the roaming hordes who troll newspaper websites and have nothing better to do than litter the Web with insults and personal attacks swoop in and quickly reduce the quality of discourse to shallow and polarized thinking.

As Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten put it, comments are “spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It’s as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots.”

Gene might have been in a bad mood when he wrote that.

But the problem of certain people abusing the privilege of public discourse and hijacking it for personal or political agendas is so pervasive that many newspapers are right now rethinking the concept of anonymity.

Beginning tomorrow, The Buffalo News will no longer post anonymous comments. “If you want to comment in The News — both in print and online — you’ll have to give us your real name and hometown,” they said.

The Wall Street Journal has introduced a feature that allows readers to see comments posted by subscribers only.

The largest newspaper chain in America, Gannett, announced last week that it is outsourcing the monitoring of its websites to provide tighter 24/7 controls.

The Olympian provides a method for readers to flag comments they find objectionable and we review them for removal. We monitor the site to remove abusive users and have banned certain users altogether.

It’s sad but some people use anonymity to unleash vitriolic epithets they would never utter in public, at work or even in their own homes.

This abuse of the comments section of our websites poses a dilemma. Demanding personal identification might eliminate the trolls who diminish rather than enlighten an online conversation, but it may also cause someone else to continue keeping their interesting ideas and opinions to themselves.

Of course, readers who come to The Olympian website can get all the news about Thurston County without reading the comments. Just stop reading at the end of the story and you’ll avoid exposing yourself to any bigotry and meanness present below.

I’m interested in what you think we should do — continue to allow anonymity in the comments section, or require everyone conversing in print or online to identify themselves?

George Le Masurier, publisher of The Olympian, can be reached at 360-357-0206 or glemasurier@theolympian.com.

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