Montana Newspaper Announces Plans To Reveal The Names Of All Previous Commenters, Despite Promises To Keep Them Secret

from the well,-that's-one-strategy dept

The Montana Standard, a newspaper in Butte, Montana has apparently decided on a new strategy for its online commenters, requiring “real names” to be associated with every comment. We’ve spent plenty of time arguing why this is kind of stupid, but many websites falsely believe that anonymity leads to less friendly comments, and using “real names” will magically make people nice (in our experience, people with real names can still be insufferable jackasses, while some of our best comments come from anonymous users, but…). But, that change in policy alone isn’t that big of a deal. What is a big deal is that the Standard has decided to do this retroactively. As it stands now, and as it’s been in the past, when you sign up to comment, it directly asks you for both your real name and your “screenname” and states pretty clearly that this is the name that will display with your comments:




But on January 1st, all of that changes, and whatever people put in as their “real names” will show up. The Standard is allowing people who are concerned to email them before December 26th to argue for why their comments should be removed before the January 1st switch over, but it seems likely that many won’t even realize this is happening. Lots of people have been using the comments on that post itself to criticize this plan, and Paul Alan Levy has written a thorough post explaining why this is so problematic:


The Standard’s retroactive application of its real name policy seems to me highly irresponsible. You can easily imagine a newspaper deciding that is not going to rely on anonymous sources in its news stories – certainly there have been media entities that have claimed to have adopted such policies. But can you imagine a paper doing so retroactively, leaving its stories online that were previously sources anonymously but replacing such categories as “inside source” with the name of a whistleblower, or replacing “highly placed official” with the name of the conniving government official speaking “candidly” about his internal adversaries under cover of source protection? “I’m sorry, Deep Throat, we have decided to tell Nixon and his henchmen who you really are.” You could have a number of unhappy sources, not to speak of some dead ones where the sources live abroad in a society or culture where dissent is not tolerated. The source’s life could be in danger even if the source lives inside the United States, if the source was talking about the Crips, or MS-13, or some militia group.

The Standard’s editor told Davis that it is publishing notice of its new policy, including the retroactive application, in both its print editions and web site, and that it “is sending emails to prior commenters, when it has valid email addresses.” (Although as of today, when I looked at the page where the site’s users register to be allowed to comment, there was no notice of any impending policy; to the contrary, the site still promises that the screen name “is the name that will be displayed next . . . for comments, blog posts, and more. Choose wisely!”) But depending on how long it has been since the Standard started accepting registrations, it is quite possible that users may have changed their email addresses, or have moved on to a new email address without ever canceling the old one, and hence they might not see the Standard’s notice. And it is also quite possible that some of the commenters may have made comments that place their economic or even physical security at risk from the individuals or companies that they criticized in online comments. Or, their comments might have revealed something about their own experiences or past conduct that they were willing to share with the public anonymously, making a valuable contribution to a discussion, but would never have been willing to provide had they known that their own names would be attached. The Standard could be putting livelihoods and more at risk through its retroactive changes.

Levy further tested the existing commenting system, discovering that it was, in fact, easy to sign up with fake “real names” — including a test where he signed up using the name of the Standard’s editor, David McCumber.


I was able to register with a completely invented name, in which I provided a real email address but no other truthful information in the various boxes on the registration page. The comment I posted is the only one that was posted on November 23, 2015 – it appears with the screen name “notmyrealname.” As a further test, I registered again today, again providing false information throughout the registration process, but this time the “real name” I provided was the name of the Standard’s editor, David McCumber, and the street address that I provided was the Standard’s own address. The comment duly appeared on the paper’s web site a few minutes later – it is there under the screen name “NotReallytheEditor.” So, presumably, this comment will appear on January 1 as having been posted by David McCumber.

Promising to keep people’s names hidden, and then retroactively changing that with little notice seems like an incredibly irresponsible thing to do. One hopes that the Standard will reconsider.

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Comments on “Montana Newspaper Announces Plans To Reveal The Names Of All Previous Commenters, Despite Promises To Keep Them Secret”

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44 Comments
tqksays:

Re: People are obviously becoming a lot more stupid this century. Who's poisoning the water supply?!?

I’d be more worried about people impersonating others by using their names.

Such as “the Standard?s editor, David McCumber”? Oh yeah, that’d be horrible! Did you actually read the article?

Except, who the **** would believe that the screen name on a forum post is that actual person, or actually that person’s name? You don’t really think my parents named me “tqk” and that’s on my birth certificate, do you?

I guess David McCumber is going to be in a lot of trouble when the FBI sees his post recruiting for ISIS, or offering hitman services, or selling illegal drugs/weapons, right?

John Fendersonsays:

Re: Re: Re: People are obviously becoming a lot more stupid this century. Who's poisoning the water supply?!?

“Except, who the **** would believe that the screen name on a forum post is that actual person, or actually that person’s name?”

This. I assume all online names are aliases. “Real name” policies only mean that the aliases have to be boring. Like mine.

Rekrulsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: People are obviously becoming a lot more stupid this century. Who's poisoning the water supply?!?

“Real name” policies only mean that the aliases have to be boring. Like mine.

Not necessarily. I’ve seen comments by;

Ben Dover (I’ve used that one)
Dick Hertz
Hugh Jorgan
Jack Meoff
Long Wang
Mike Hunt

Etc.

The Wanderersays:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re: Re: Re: People are obviously becoming a lot more stupid this century. Who's poisoning the water supply?!?

(Second post attempt; the first one led to a blank page for some reason. Sometimes that means “it posted, but we didn’t load the confirmation page properly”, but this time reloading doesn’t show the comment.)

My favorite name in this vein is “Richard Bissell”; if you don’t get it, you probably don’t remember the Bissell brand of vacuum cleaners. (For context, he wrote some of the best – and most good-literature – erotica the Internet has ever seen.)

Anonymoussays:

lesson learned

Another problem with these “real name only” sites is that people who sign up with uncommon (esp. non-Anglo-Saxon) names will tend to get banned if an admin thinks the name looks like it might have been created by a random letter generating signup bot. So if your real name is something like “Mi Ho” — you should consider changing it to some fake name like “Michael Johnson” to avoid the ban-hammer.

The secret to surviving on the Internet isn’t to refrain from being stupid, or hiding your stupidity behind anonymity. I’m not sure either of those are completely possible.

The secret is to realize that everyone has their own unique brand of stupid, to accept it, “sack up,” and own your stupidity.

But certainly, people should be allowed to be anonymous if they feel safer that way.

tqksays:

Re: Re:

The secret to surviving on the Internet isn’t to refrain from being stupid, or hiding your stupidity behind anonymity. I’m not sure either of those are completely possible.

I’ll quibble with that. One, it’s easy to refrain from being stupid on the net. Just shut up, and no-one will know you’re stupid. However, if you’re smart enough to do that, are you really stupid?

Two, anonymity doesn’t hide stupidity. It just keeps it from being attributed to you. You’ll still look stupid (or your posts will), but for some people, not having to wear it personally is good enough for them, and the point is to annoy people, not add anything to a discussion. It’s like that little kid yelling, “Mommy, mommy, look at me mommy, mommy, mommy!” “Yes dear.”

I wish forums would do a word count on posts. Anything less than X words or lines? To the bit bucket, Batman!

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I wish forums would do a word count on posts.

$ wget -q -O - https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20151125/06393632902/montana-newspaper-announces-plans-to-reveal-names-all-previous-commenters-despite-promises-to-keep-them-secret.shtml | xsltproc --html --nonet --stringparam cid c253 cmt.xsl - 2>/dev/null | wc

cmt.xsl file required for use with above shell command:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<xsl:stylesheet version="1.0" xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform">
    <xsl:output method="text" />
    <xsl:param name="cid" />
    <xsl:template match="/">
        <xsl:apply-templates select="id($cid)//div[@class='cbody']" />
    </xsl:template>
    <xsl:template match="br">
        <xsl:text>&#x0A;</xsl:text>
    </xsl:template>
</xsl:stylesheet>

(You may have to remove a couple spaces which seem to get randomly inserted into both the long command line and the stylesheet, despite best efforts at escaping.)

Anything less than X words or lines?

That’s an exercise left for you.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re: Re: Re: Re:

Comments should be padded out with as much garbage as possible, just like your example, eh?

Sorry about indenting the xsl stylesheet with all the &nbsp;‘s. But if you just select the xsl and then middle-mouse-paste, I’m not having any difficulty converting the &nbsp;‘s back into ascii x20’s.

You want to know I myself wish? That Techdirt would provide a simple mechanism to preserve plain text formatting.

tqksays:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

Sorry about indenting the xsl stylesheet with all the & n b s p ;’s.

Ptheh. It looked fine in the email copy I was sent (and which I saved for posterity, thanks :-). Webbish stuff, as everyone should know, needs specialized mangling (note what I had to do to your last word quoted) to get plain text through at all.

Of course, once you mix *nix, MS, and Apple charsets in (not to mention ISO-nnnn or utf-n), it’s a crapshoot whether anything remains readable at the final destination.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

Of course, once you mix *nix, MS, and Apple charsets in (not to mention ISO-nnnn or utf-n), it’s a crapshoot whether anything remains readable at the final destination.

Oh, yeah. Good catch.

Best approach —I think— first is wget to a temp file. (You kinda want to do that anyhow—if you want to extract more than one comment from an article per get.)

For the charset, use xslt to extract from:

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=utf-8"/>

Pop that into the shell, and then take another pass with xsltproc to extract the comment body from the temp file, piping into wc with LANG set.

How does that sound?

I think you can actually extract the charset in the same pass as a pass for extracting comment id attributes. (You probably want to build a list of those, in order to process each body separately.)

John Fendersonsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I tend to agree with Scott Adams on the stupidity question: we’re all idiots. Not all the time about everything, but often enough that it’s wise to take it into account.

“Anything less than X words or lines? To the bit bucket, Batman!”

I understand the point, but some of the funniest comments I’ve seen have been one or two words, and some of the most insightful have been under 10.

bdjsays:

So the paper is about to violate peoples trust? I thought trust was kind of a necessary thing for newspapers. Next at 11:00, local newspaper retroactively changes real name policy discovers their website defaced/doxxed… Disclaimer: I don’t condone hacking (and it sucks that I feel the need to say so, but modern times and whatnot)…

On another note, seeing that wget comment above was so awesome! Kudos for the terminal skills…

Jesse Townleysays:

I think it's a good move, except for...

I think it’s a great move. If you can’t stand behind your comments on-line, then why are you making them?

In our local news sites, trolls who are NOT representative of the general population run rampant while most sane people don’t bother. It gives the impression that their opinions are representative, while every election and other expression of public opinion proves the opposite. (It’s unclear how many are actually local as well)

It’s a shame because there are such possibilities to these news sites for a community to have honest conversations about politics, development, and local government, but we’re drowned out by assholes who hide behind an alias.

The only downside is the reversal. They should institute real names from January 1st-on, not retroactively, in recognition of their earlier policy.

Let me make clear that I’m not against being anonymous at times at your choosing, but for me I’d rather read honest open opinions from my community, not snarky hate from cowardly racists.

Jesse Townleysays:

Re: Re: I think it's a good move, except for...

For instance, on non-news message boards (or even this site), I’ve no problem with anonymous accounts. I choose not to use them often, but that’s my choice.

Yes, I know the immediate response to this is “it should be my choice on a mainstream media news site too” and, well, I guess I see that as a different context.

I don’t know, I wish more news sites would do this going forward (not retroactively, as much as I’d love to see who some of these dickwads are).

Klaussays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: I think it's a good move, except for...

“They should institute real names from January 1st-on, not retroactively, in recognition of their earlier policy.”

That’s about the only statement in your two posts that I can agree on. And then only partially, that this policy should not be retroactive.

Facts don’t support your opinions. This post is 40 comments deep, a great many by anonymous commenters or by regulars who comment under a handle. You only have to read them to see that the point in the first paragraph “…people with real names can still be insufferable jackasses, while some of our best comments come from anonymous users…” holds.

As long as a site has the means for it’s community to flag up bad comments, then I don’t see the problem to which losing anonymity is a solution.

Jesse Townleysays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I think it's a good move, except for...

I’d rather shine light on the cockroaches then let them hide.

I agree that real name commenters can be jerks too, hence my previous sentence.

You may have picked up some ambivalence about all of this in my posts. That’s accurate. I don’t feel strongly enough about it to do more than strongly lobby my local media outlets to add real-name comment systems.

I habitually use my real name on those sites because, in part, I’m an elected official so I am ALWAYS thinking about what I’m writing on-line. (okay ALMOST always, ha ha ha)

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