For civility, add names to opinions

Rekha Basu, columnist for the Des Moines Register. Image via Iowa State University.

Anonymity allows folks to escape the flak for some of the ugly and prejudiced things they say – and which flout the standards for what our society considers decent and civil.

For whatever reasons, this column seems to be a lightning rod for that sort of demagoguery. But there is a relatively simple solution: Requiring people to use their real names when they comment. From now on, that will be the standard for commenting on columns with my byline. I’m willing to bet that step alone will force the quality of discussion to improve. When people know their friends, neighbors and co-workers are reading what they say, they have to be more accountable.

This isn’t punishment, and it’s certainly not to deny anyone’s free speech. It’s an invitation to come out of the closet.

The above are quotes from an article by Rekha Basu about civility in internet discussions: For civility, add names to opinions. Ms. Basu, a columnist on the Des Moines Register, writes about some pretty complex topics, including human rights, racial and gender issues. You can imagine that she gets some pretty nasty comments on her column. For years, she’s been discussing with her editors what to do to encourage more civil conversation, and has found something to try. Comments on her column will now only be allowed through Facebook. She’ll still get some nasty comments, I’m sure, but I’d be surprised if this change didn’t greatly improve the quality of discussion.
We’ve been pretty lucky here at Biofortified to have gotten only a few nasty comments, and the editors have only gotten a few nasty emails. Things aren’t going so well on Grist and many other sites. Biofortified isn’t going to start requiring real names, at least for now, but I would like to ask commenters to pause for a moment before clicking “Submit” on a comment. Remember that the people you’re entering into the discussion are real people just like you.

Gina Trapani, editor of Lifehacker. Image via Gina's website.

Lifehacker editor Gina Trapani has some great commenting guidelines that all of us, no matter our opinions on genetic engineering or anything else, should take a moment to read. She begins:

Leaving a comment on someone’s weblog is like walking into their living room and joining in on a conversation. As in real life, online there are some people who are a pleasure to converse with, and some who are not. Good blog commenters add to the discussion and are known as knowledgeable, informative, friendly and engaged.

Let’s listen to these two smart women and work towards having more meaningful discussions. Who’s with me?
h/t Francis Thicke who posted the column on Facebook.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

18 comments

  1. I understand this, and of course everyone’s entitled to do what they want at their site. But I’m afraid it will also limit the conversations.
    First, I’m not on Facebook, so I’m out. Second, my company may not permit me to post things that might have political ramifications. Maybe that sounds silly to some, but if you compete for government grants, or are in fact a government contractor, and say you use the word “evolution” or something that a certain political group disapproves…well….There could be real consequences beyond you personally.
    I can also imagine other topics where people wouldn’t want to be public: abortion, rape, homosexuality, etc. Those voices that could add important first-hand perspective to the topic will not be able to.
    So I understand the problem. But there are drawbacks that may limit the conversation as well.

  2. Good blog commenters add to the discussion and are known as knowledgeable, informative, friendly and engaged.

    I don’t think you remotely have to hit all of these, or even necessarily any of these, to be a “good blog commentator” – knowledgable or informative would really only be the key ones here imo, being friendly is all well and good, but some of the best commentators on blogs I’ve read are anything but (for instance SC over at Pharyngula is as far from friendly as it gets, particularly when discussing GMOs and Monsanto, but is a spectacularly good blog commentator – the same, without necessarily the venom against corporate agribusiness, could be said for many of the commentators there – including PZ himself)
    Perhaps in order to convert someone it can be argued that being friendly and nice etc etc is the only way to do it (it isn’t – I’ve been browbeaten out of some pretty silly ideas with pretty harsh words for example) but in my opinion as sound beatdown of a stupid idea does more for the general viewing audience than pussyfooting around trying to find common ground with morons (for instance anyone who can deal with Ken Ham with anything other than abject derision probably hasn’t heard of the man) which if anything just gives bad ideas undue credibility.
    I also agree with MaryM that the lack of anonymity can be an issue for those in positions where they can’t express certain views – I’m lucky in that nothing I say (fingers crossed, and corporate secrets notwithstanding) is likely to come back and bite me on the ass, but I feel that a lot of people will be excluded from conversations for exactly the reasons Mary points out, also a great number of people distrust facebook and social networking sites in general and will thus also be kept in the dark with moves like this (although I don’t see what stops anyone making a doppleganger facebook profile to be an ass with it’s not like it’s difficult to have more than a single facebook account) – equally I don’t particularly want people I engage in debate to be able to know what school I went to, or what color my baby’s poop was this morning, so linking to facebook has pitfalls in this direction also (it wouldn’t, I think, be overly hard to get this info anyway(given how awesomeley insecure facebook is), but I’d rather people have to work for it a bit)

  3. There are certainly specific problems with limiting commenting to Facebook users only – but what I find striking is that this columnist has gotten such horrible comments that she’s going to this (fairly) drastic measure. It makes me think that we’ve been really lucky. With as many hits as we get, you’d think there’d be more trolls at least.
    I posted the article because Francis shared it just as I was thinking about how I shouldn’t have been snarky to a commenter on the non-browning apple post. I need to be more careful about my comments myself.
    Although, I don’t directly insult people or threaten anyone, which is more than I can say for Grist commenters. I have seriously gotten emails that originated from Grist users that threatened me with physical harm such as rape. It was a while ago, but I’ll never forget it. Those anonymous commenters think they have power, as discussed by Ms. Basu in her article. If requiring names will help on her site, I do wish sites like Grist would consider more secure commenting systems like Discus. I’m just really glad that we for the most part do ok here.

  4. I have seriously gotten emails that originated from Grist users that threatened me with physical harm such as rape.

    Wow – that honestly sounds like it goes beyond asking for civility on a blog and more into the grounds of stuff that should be reported to the police – the internet really isn’t as anonymous as people might like to think – there is a world of difference between a bit of petty namecalling and switching of names (biof***ified har har) to threats of physical violence or rape – again I don’t think restricting posts to facebook accounts is likely to remotely prevent this (it takes all of five minutes to set up a facebook account)
    I dont take issue with people being uncivil – but I can see that when it strays away from being uncivil and actually becomes illegal (pretty sure threats of actual violence or rape fall into this category) then I’d advocate getting out somewhat more potent guns than attempting to show who people are through forcing them to use facebook (I’m thinking a halfway competant web master should be able to dig up a slew of personal details about any poster – recently one of PZ’s students basically pulled the life history of a commentor on their blog for being a bit dickish – I’d be all for publishing the whole slew of sordid details with attached threats for all to see in cases of threats of that nature (and I’d really enjoy seeing someone try and legally do anything about it after having made threats of rape for instance))

  5. Yeah, I’ve had the hate mail. But not the sexual toned threats so far. But that’s why in some places I use a gender-unidentifiable name. I think there are additional risks to BWF (blogging while female).
    On the other hand, that also means it doesn’t look like women are participating, which also changes the tone of some discussions I find.
    It’s a hard problem.

  6. Oh, and as an addendum – the whole threat by email thing speaks to a need (as Mary alludes above) to retain some anonymity, particularly on contentious issues – I certainly wouldnt want my facebook profile linked to situations where I was subject to that level of threatening behaviour – particularly as that brings in your immediate friends, family etc – I sometimes feel like I’m skating on thin ice with the details readily available anyway and certainly wouldn’t be comfortable releasing more into such a toxic environment (I didn’t realize it was that bad… I haven’t had a single death threat this past couple of years, and my info isn’t exactly hard to come by).

  7. Grist can get pretty ugly. As a matter of fact several of the nasty commentators that Anastasia is alluding to registered solely for the purpose of lobbing nasty attacks against her and myself. (Unless they registered to comment months ago and didn’t get around to it until now.)
    My perspective is that anonymous comments are ok insofar as they are relatively civil. If people start getting really nasty then they are using the anonymity to be a jerk. We have removed some such comments from Biofortified, although Grist seems to have no intention to moderate their nasties out of existence. Maybe they want Grist to be a no-hold-barred fight to the death in the comment thread, but that’s not the kind of discussion we’re looking to have here.
    There is another kind of commenter that is neither totally anonymous nor fully named – regular commenters that have an internet handle instead of using their name. I have known some people who go by easy to recognize nicknames in comment threads or in building wikis, and they may use the anonymity to protect themselves or just add character to things. By contributing under that handle they can build a reputation. I think that’s perfectly fine.
    There is one thing I constantly chuckle over – and that is when someone forgets that we can see their IP address. Sockpuppetry is easy to spot, I have found 2 here so far. I’m working on a comment policy page to give more details about what is expected when people comment here, their personal details being safe, etc, and what happens if they violate the rules.
    I wouldn’t want to make things too restrictive, so far I count us lucky in that we haven’t been deluged by piles of nasty comments needing moderation. We could always require registration for commenting, but that would restrict the likelihood that someone might comment at all, which should be avoided if possible.

  8. particularly as that brings in your immediate friends, family etc

    This actually reminds me of the flip side of this issue: because I am a bit out there, and will spar in comment sections, some people have come to recognize me. And some *good* letters have also come to thank me for what I do, because they can’t.
    One scientist wrote to thank me because he felt he couldn’t put his kids at risk. As I have no kids, and as I own the company I work at, I have more freedom than most. And because of that I feel some responsibility to speak for those who can’t.

  9. I’ve only received nice replies for various posts I’ve made (quite a few internally from random folk, aswell as a couple from various blog owners who have apparently asked about me at conferences also (they now presumably know who they are!)) but see the potential that friends and family could get stomped on by the sort of jackasses who’d make rape or other such threats.
    As my wife and I now have a child I’ve totally locked down my facebook friends lists such that only those I totally trust have immediate access to various details – can totally see why this would make others want to wall off completely from a debate that sparks that level of hate – particularly if they’ve already been threatened (I haven’t, yet, so can only speculate about the stress it must cause – kudos to Anastasia for sticking at it after having to deal with such crap, I guess what with the military training and knowing how to kill with a simple stare (I’ve seen Men who stare at goats – I know what you people are capable of!!) such threats don’t have the same visceral effect.

  10. I can see everyone’s points and perspectives on this topic, but I must say I lean in the direction of Mary M’s position. One of the main reasons scientists in the field of agro biotech don’t speak out under their own names is that it enables ad hominem arguments of the worst stripe.
    By which I mean, concerted efforts to destroy their careers, or even, to firebomb their laboratories.
    As far as using real names to encourage civil behavior by the opponents of agro biotechnology, I don’t see that as working very well for many of them. Such people are not in the least embarrassed by openly advocating misanthropy. Indeed, many of them consider malice to be a moral duty.
    Finally, I would suggest that anonymity actually works to discourage ad hominem statements and acts. If they don’t know who you are, the only option is to discuss what you say.

  11. I figure I’ll chime in with the iconoclast’s view on the matter. All too often, I see the term ‘civility’ being used to silence opinions one finds unfavorable. If you don’t like someone’s ideas, tell them they’re being uncivil and they’ll pipe down even if they bring up a valid point.
    There are limits to this, of course, but in general I don’t really see the difference between telling someone their opinions are ill-considered and telling them their opinions are flat out stupid if they meet the criteria. I also think that in some cases you just have to come out and straight-up point out that some folks are denialists because there’s no other way to describe their views.

  12. You obviously don’t read the Des Moines Register’s comments very often. The comments that Ms. Desu politely describes as ill-considered can more correctly be called crass, directly insulting, going against all standards of human decency… need I continue? Similarly, Grist commenters often leave their civility at the door and start right out with the name calling. I don’t think there’s any reason to silence someone’s opinion if they are actually presenting an opinion, but if they’re just yelling insults, then, yeah, they should shut up and stop being stupid. Asking them to be civil just makes them worse.

  13. I have to admit that I sometimes worry for my personal safety, because it’s all to easy to find exactly where I am. If I worked with animal research I know I wouldn’t be as outgoing online as I am because of fear of firebombs. Luckily my research is pretty low profile and my lab has no windows.
    If opponents of agricultural technology take pride in their malice, then they should own it by putting their name and reputation behind their opinions, instead of hiding behind ever changing pseudonyms.
    The reality of comment boards everywhere shows that anonymity is no barrier to insults. I wish it was as you described, but it’s not.

  14. I am totally fine with people having a restricted online persona as you describe. It’s a good balance between personal safety and having readers be able to know who you are.

  15. Thankfully the threats were an isolated incident a long time ago – just when Biofortified was getting started. I don’t even remember what the Grist discussion was about, and I don’t really remember the text of the email (which I unfortunately deleted) but I’ll never forget the chill that ran down my spine at someone wanting to hurt me in the worst possible ways just because we had an intellectual disagreement. Maybe that incident is why I freak out a little when debates start to get heated – I hardly go on Grist at all anymore, and I always regret it when I do.
    On the other hand, I have gotten lots of positive emails, Facebook messages, and comments – way more positive than negative. People really appreciate it when scientists go out there into the internet jungles and try to work with people on understanding the science.

  16. With that, I agree. As I said, there’s a point where it’s obvious that the person is no longer interested in any sort of exchange of ideas and this is the point where action should be taken.
    I did, however, want to bring up the flip side of the argument. It’s common in religious debates to frame any sort of criticism as persecution in order to silence unpopular opinions.
    I’m not even trying to say that the line is always (or ever, for that matter) easy to draw or that anyone here is guilty of that because from what I’ve seen I don’t think that’s the case.

  17. If I may, here’s a quick story about an incident that occurred at a biotech company (my former employer) about 15 years ago. An “organization” known as the Future Farmers (not to be confused with the real FFA), broke into the station at night (so much for civil disobedience!) and destroyed quite a few rows of tomatoes (even the heirloom varieties) and other veggies, as well as cutting into and trashing several greenhouses that contained transgenic veggies. The amount of damage clearly rose to the level of a felony.
    The next day one of plant breeders went out to talk the press and television stations about the incident. We set up tighter security from that point on.
    Now for the other shoe!! The plant breeder’s name, address and phone number appeared on the internet within a day or two and began to spread among the sites of these fringe groups. And by the way, he had a wife and two kids under the age of 5 at home. I have two kids as well, and while I’m probably not worth the trouble to those who think this way, a lack of security is not an option even in the interest of civility.

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