Huffington Post to ban anonymous comments

Posted at 2:02 PM, Aug 23, 2013
By Elizabeth Landers

(CNN) — Arianna Huffington is fed up with the trolls.

The founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post says that starting next month, she will require readers to identify themselves by name in the comments sections of her eponymous news site.

Huffington made the off-the-cuff comment in a Q&A session after a speech Wednesday to a crowd of 4,000 at a conference in Boston, according to spokeswoman Katie Burke of HubSpot, a marketing software company that hosts the conference.

“Freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they’re saying and who are not hiding behind anonymity,” Huffington told the audience. “Maintaining a civil environment for real conversation and community has always been key to the Huffington Post.

“From day one, our comments were pre-moderated, and we invested in the most advanced moderation technology along with human moderators,” she said. “Now we want to go a step further to evolve our platform — which has always been about community and engagement — to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet.”

In other words, the Internet “trolls,” or nasty anonymous commenters, have gotten worse. The Boston Globe, which covered Huffington’s speech, quoted her as saying that “trolls have become more and more aggressive and uglier.”

Websites have long grappled with how to police users who hijack comment threads with posts that range from snarky to untruthful to downright vicious, their animosity protected by anonymity. Sites like JuicyCampus and CollegeACB got the ax after existing for several years as hosts for anonymous gossip. In recent years the problem has taken tragic turns, as cyberbullying on social media and other platforms has been blamed for several suicides.

A Huffington Post spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the site’s new policy will be implemented next month. The spokesperson would not elaborate on specifics of the plan other than to say, “Our engineers are working on the exact implementation plan and we will share that as soon as it is finalized.”

Many news sites have moderating systems that remove offensive comments, and some sites have sought to make commenters more accountable by requiring them to register via an account on Facebook or other social platform.

CNN requires people to create accounts to participate in discussions on, but it’s not a foolproof system, says David E. Williams, community manager for CNN Digital.

“We think it’s really important to listen to the conversations our stories start on CNN. There are a lot of smart people in our audience with unique perspectives, so their comments can be a valuable resource,” Williams said.

“Trolls are pretty unpleasant, but the bigger problem is that they make it harder to find and surface interesting conversations,” he added. “We are always looking for ways to improve the quality of the conversations on our sites.”

Since its launch in 2005, the Huffington Post has garnered 260 million comments from its online community of readers, according to the spokesperson.

The site’s current comment policy is clearly stated online, with guidelines for users that include “Be yourself, only yourself, and just one of yourself” as well as “If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it.”

Huffington’s decision to prohibit anonymous comments is better than banning all comments, said Sarah Sobieraj, a media expert and sociology professor at Tufts University in suburban Boston.

“It’s valuable that she is not shutting down comments altogether, though it’s sort of a Pandora’s box,” said Sobieraj, who believes that people who really want to post offensive messages will still find a way to do that make other efforts to post their opinions. In the digital age it’s not difficult to create a pseudonym tied to a secondary e-mail address.

“The ability to speak anonymously online is not just for trolls,” Sobieraj added. Many people turn to the anonymity of the Internet for meaningful dialogue about sensitive topics, such as politics or impropriety in the workplace, that prove difficult to discuss face to face, she said.

Huffington’s views on news-site commenters seem a little less charitable than they were in 2010, when she told CNN, “As a writer, I love the instant feedback. It makes the site a two-way experience. People no longer want to just passively sit back and be served up information. We now engage with news, react to news, and share news. News has become something around which we gather, connect, and converse.”

So what do you think about Huffington’s efforts to rein in abusive commenters? Let us know below — how meta! — in the comments. And be nice.

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