Retroactive Change on Anonymous Comments at the Montana Standard

by Paul Alan Levy

Over at Internet Daily’s Policy Blog, Wendy Davis brings us news that the Montana Standard, the daily paper in Butte Montana, is retroactively changing its policy for the posting of online comments to stories on its web site.  The current policy, which will apparently continue in effect until January 1, allows users to register either using their Facebook accounts or, at the user’s option, registering “only with us” by providing their first and last names and an email address, as well as selecting a password and a “screenname”; according to the registration page, “This is the name that will be displayed next to your photo for comments, blog posts, and more. Choose wisely!”  As of January 1, however, comments will be posted under the users’ real first and last names.

The kicker here is that the change is retroactive.  Apparently unwilling to part with the wealth of comments that are already posted on its web site under the old policy, but also, apparently, unwilling to configure its software so that comments posted before the new policy is implemented remain under the chosen screen names, the Standard announces that past comments will suddenly appear using the users’ real names unless users contact the paper no later than December 26 to ask that their comments be removed.

Should Anonymous Comments Be Forbidden?

The decision to demand the use of actual names instead of screen names in online comment systems has long been debated – although I tend to agree with those who urge that anonymous comments should be allowed, many mainstream media outfits have worried that the proliferation of vile comments may deter members of the community whose patronage the outfits most value to stay away from their web sites, and they value that traffic more than they worry about the loss of candid comments from members of the public who face retaliation from being identified with their disclosures or opinions. These concerns raise policy decisions that responsible hosts of online content must address (note that this is a very different question from whether a court should enforce a subpoena to compel disclosure of an online speaker’s name).

To be sure, it is easier for specialized blogs with a relatively limited audience.  The comments sections that follow stories on many newspapers’ web sites can get pretty vicious, and mindless – for example, it is rarely worth looking at the comments section at my hometown newspaper, the Washington Post.  One of my favorite free speech blogs, the Volokh Conspiracy, used to have an excellent comment section that has gained some of the unpleasant features to which Washington Post readers have long been accustomed since the blog moved under the Washington Post’s mantle.  But at newspapers where the digital team takes the time to engage in genuine moderation of comments, such as at the New York Times, it is apparent that even in forums that allow pseudonymous commenting, media with a mass audience can enjoy rational discussion among commenters. 

The Standard’s editor, David McCumber, told Davis that its staff “moderates posts, [but] it still receives ‘a lot of comments that are very negative in nature about individuals”; its story on its new policy insists that comments “will still be moderated for abusive comments.”  It is not at all clear to me why the Standard can’t moderate as effectively as the Times.  Regrettably, McCumber did not return my call asking about issues with its new policy.

The Perils of Retroactivity

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.

Moreover, although I cannot be sure because I don’t know how the Standard’s new system will operate (my effort to reach the newspaper’s editor with questions  was unsuccessful), I ran a test that suggests to me that the Standard’s new policy might not work quite as it intends.  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.  

Now, the Standard’s story on its new policy asserts, “we will do our best to confirm that commenters are registered under their real names,” so McCumber himself is probably safe from being identified with my comment on its web site — the staff will recognize his name and figure out the spoof.  But I wonder how effective the paper will be at catching other spoofs — and if it is willing to devote quality staff time to that endeavor, why not just engage in more effective moderation of pseudonymous comments?

It seems to me that the Standard might well want to rethink its retroactivity policy, because a whole passel of comments might end up being falsely attributed on its web site to people who would be horrified at being associated with comments supposedly in  their own names.

0 thoughts on “Retroactive Change on Anonymous Comments at the Montana Standard

  1. mike says:

    It seems like a big decision to make on a belief. I don’t disagree that there is some evidence that over the short term you might see some change.
    In 2007 the South Korean government implemented a real name policy for the entire country in an effort to curb malicious comments online that had led, in cases, to people committing suicide (notably a celebrity).
    Research presented by Cho and Kim in 2012 (Empirical Analysis of Online Anonymity and User Behaviors: the Impact of Real Name Policy) found that there was a change in the language used in online forums following the change. However, the language they measured was that targeting political figures and this period also saw a change of president (2008) and a crackdown on media freedom and the arrest of government opponents, which could account for a change in online speech. Further, there were still cases reported of suicide due to online harassment, including celebrities.
    In 2012 the South Korean Constitutional Court ruled Law requiring the use of real names online was unconstitutional. The court unanimously decided that the law violated people’s freedom of speech.
    “The system does not seem to have been beneficial to the public. Despite the enforcement of the system, the number of illegal or malicious postings online has not decreased,” the court said in its verdict.(
    The end result of the exercise was that over a period of 5 years, even in an atmosphere of tight social controls and a fierce government effort the use of a real name system had no impact on the amount of harm caused by online speech. You might push the speech elsewhere, but that is not a control in the online environment (i.e. there will still be victims, and they will still be in your community).
    Thank you to Mr. Levy for the article and for Mr. McCumber for his efforts to engage with those online to find a solution that is workable. Perhaps now that you definitely have their attention and have brought the problem to light you and your community can work to a solution together. I hope that you find a model that works both in terms of cost and efficacy.

  2. McKinley Morganfield says:

    This is worth discussing, especially the editor’s claim that software requires exposing old messages.
    Eugene Volokh reports at the Washington Post that in a stunning policy shift, The Montana Standard, a daily newspaper in Butte, has decided to expose the real names of everyone who ever placed an anonymous comment on the paper’s web site.
    Past comments are to re-appear with the poster’s real name, unless the paper is contacted by December 26 to ask that one’s comments be removed.
    In a Nov. 12 editorial, the editor said, “We have encountered consistent difficulty with posts that exceed the bounds of civil discourse — as have many sites where comments from anonymous posters are allowed.” [True for every site but others aren’t doing what he is. They delete egregious posts.]
    “This is the end of open and honest comments on this site,” wrote user BGF. “It is easy to put your name to your comments if you are retired. But it is another thing altogether if you have to worry about upsetting your peers and bosses at work.”
    The newspaper editor, David McCumber, blatantly lying? claimed he extensively investigated configuring the newspaper’s software to authenticate only new comments, not change old ones. He claims “content-management software experts” told him it’s not possible to separate newly arriving comments from archived ones.
    Perhaps suggesting what is at the bottom of this, McCumber said “When a relatively small city is at the center of your market, just about everybody commented about is known, and the anonymous comments sting.”
    IOW, he’s been criticized, friends and pol pals and major advertisers have been criticized, and they want to know who did it, and make them stop.

  3. Noah Callaway says:

    This seems like a pretty clear violation of their privacy policy (as Mr. Volokh has noted: What are the possible repercussions for such a violation of a privacy policy. The FTC claims to be able to enforce compliance with such policies (, but do they have any teeth? Would anonymous comments on the MT Standard be within their rights to file a complaint with the FTC?

  4. 510 says:

    It is certainly telling that despite close to 200 comments on the two articles on the MTStandard that address this change, Mr. McCumber has not engaged with the commenting community, nor has he taken questions from those posted and addressed them.
    He has, however, answered criticism on the MTCowgirl blog and this one – very quickly, too. Which goes to show me at least that despite his assertion the change is about building a better community – he hasn’t bothered to engage with that very community, 99% of whom are against this policy, on his own paper.
    I also have never changed my email and I never received an email informing me of the change, so I suspect there are going to be many, many more out there and members of the Butte community will spend many hours reading over the comments to see who said what and when. It is winter after all, and not much else to do.

  5. Adam Scales says:

    Dear Mr. McCumber:
    Like most people reading this today, I’d never heard of your paper and don’t imagine I’ll be commenting on your website anytime soon. I have to say, though, that your argument strikes me as absurd.
    I don’t even like internet anonymity that much (though I’ve taken advantage of it when convenient), but changing the rules midway is difficult to justify. How many of your readers must plausibly worry about employer retaliation for you to recognize it as significant? If even one formerly anonymous commenter had that experience as a result of relying on your newspaper’s shortly-to-be-abandoned promise, how would you ask us to evaluate the fairness of that?
    You have an alternative. You could remove all comments prior to December 26, and instantiate the new policy going forward. The archival value of comments is real, but limited. They provide a snapshot of the community’s contemporaneous reaction to news, and this would indeed be lost to the general public. However, their larger value lies in the immediate conversation comments provide, as members of the public refine, adjust or (often) intensify their views through dialogue. That value has already been provided, and past comments could be eliminated without impairing it.
    Finally – and this is one for the techies out there – it is probably possible to cache your old pages (which the Internet Wayback Machine already does) so as to preserve both the old comments and their anonymity. That would serve your readers well, but you less well – since this might limit your ability to smoothly integrate your historical pages into your current commercial efforts. Possibly, that would be too much to ask of you – except that you gave your word to your readers that they would remain anonymous.
    Adam Scales

  6. David McCumber says:

    A few things in response to your very thoughtful, well-written blog post about our commenting decision:
    It is not that I am “unwilling to configure our software so that comments posted before the new policy is implemented remain under chosen screen names.” I extensively investigated that possibility and was unfortunately told by our content-management software experts that such a configuration is impossible.
    Based on that, I am trying to do what is most equitable to all of our readers.
    I believe that some of our challenges here are unique to community journalists. When a relatively small city is at the center of your market, just about everybody commented about is known, and the anonymous comments sting. I personally believe that very few of our readers are concerned about employers’ retaliation; I think that instead the relatively few posters who consistently offer destructive and noxious comments enjoy the cloak of anonymity in order to avoid community accountability. I believe that our site is and should be a community meeting place, and as such, rules of conduct should apply.
    That said, I am as ardent a believer in free speech as you are likely to find in this profession. I also believe in transparency and accountability.
    Thanks very much for your consideration of these points.

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