Friday, January 06, 2012

Post-anonymous, legal risks in Facebook comments

Gannett websites recently switched to a Facebook-powered commenting system in hopes readers would be more civil; after all, the thinking goes, they'd be using their real names.

Now, readers are discovering the more immediate legal consequences of posting out in the open.

This week, two Wisconsin real estate developers sued a Wisconsin Rapids resident, Mark Larson, for posting what they say was a defamatory comment about them on a story published last month by The Daily Tribune of Wisconsin Rapids.

The Dec. 16 story said the developers, brothers Brad and Pat Pavloski, had sold a Nepco Lake boat landing to another developer -- a deal that could halt public access to the landing by ice fisherman.

Larson, commenting on the story via his Facebook account, wrote: "What a travesty. IMO, why does there seem to be a taint in every endeavor of the Pavloski boys, from papa on down." He also wrote: "I fear this is just a harbinger of whats to come when public lands and spaces are increasingly gobbled up by private interests."

Pre-Facebook, Larson might have posted that comment anonymously, making it harder for the Pavloskis to track him down. Harder, but not impossible, of course. Gannett's online privacy policy says: "Please be aware that we may occasionally release information about our visitors if required to do so by law."

Paper zapped all comments
The newspaper subsequently removed all the reader comments on the story -- including Larson's -- according to an independent news weekly, VOICE of Wisconsin Rapids; it reported the Pavloskis' lawsuit, filed Tuesday, in a story today.

Larson's comment is still on his Facebook page, where it was posted as well, after it first appeared on the Tribune story. Indeed, he subsequently reposted it a second time on his Facebook page, to defend it against criticism by other Facebook users.

Tribune readers, meanwhile, started posting new comments on the original story, demanding that the paper return the original comments. "By removing those posts," wrote Steve Abrahamson, "it would seem you are hiding something or protecting someone. Please give me some feedback as to why this happened."

Echos of Wausau
In its story today, VOICE of Wisconsin Rapids said the Tribune isn't named in the Pavloskis' suit. It quoted media attorney Bob Dreps saying the paper "is not responsible for third party comments on its website."

This isn't the first time one of Gannett's 10 Wisconsin papers has had trouble with reader comments. In 2009, the Wausau Daily Herald was accused of turning over the identity of an anonymous poster to a local government official after the poster wrote critical comments about the official on the paper's website.

That prompted a memo from News Department Vice President Kate Marymont, who reminded editors that it's company policy to shield the identities of anonymous posters.

Related: VOICE of Wisconsin Rapids was founded by former Gannett employees Jeff and Kathy Williams.


  1. Only beneficiary in this deal is Facebook, which reaps tons of information about its users and sells it. Typical Gannett quick and cheap in the short run strategy.

  2. Because Tribune readers wondered why the original comments disappeared from the Nepco Lake story, I just posted a comment of my own in that story thread -- with a link to this post.

    It will be interesting to see whether the Tribune removes mine.

  3. This doesn't bother me at all. I see no reason that the Internet should somehow be exempt from the basic legal protections everyone has from hearsay, slander and libels.

    If people have to think before they put ugliness on the Web -- much like some of the junk here -- I'm all for it.

    You can't say anything you want on a public broadcast without legal repercussions if you go too far. Why should the Internet be different?

  4. As an opinion page editor, I tried my best to assure that the people writing letters to the editor were who they said they were. Letters insinuating that people were crooks, tainting the city's dealings, were rejected or, with the writer's permission, edited.
    The move to letting anybody say anything anonymously in the comments section attached to stories rubbed me the wrong way. My name was published on everything I wrote and I still feel people should be accountable for their opinions in print.
    I'm not concerned about the lawsuit. I am concerned that readers aren't absorbing the lesson that whether you write in the print press or on the Internet' what you say is there forever and it is wise to take care in your choice of words. ~ Shirley Ragsdale

  5. I'm with you 11:23. This isn't a commentary on FB comments. It's about people having forgotten about the consequences of opening their mouths. I see a regular stream of comments here that would land people in court if they were named and if the accused wanted to pursue it. Good for the all of those who have moved to named comments (I know it's not ideal, but it's MUCH better.) Jim, I hope you tire someday of presiding over the sewer.

  6. Thank god for the VOICE. I live in Wisconsin and wouldn't have heard about this if it weren't for Jeff and Kathy Williams and Jim's blog.

    I'm loving this, since I dislike Facebook and Gannett's new commenting policy. It was only a matter of time.

  7. I'm gonna argue here that commenting on stories should be done away with completely unless there's a serious moderation system in place, as with the NY Times.

    Comments on most newspaper websites are wastelands of racist, defamatory dreck. The switchover to Facebook is an imperfect solution - I've seen people who have managed to create pseudonymous profiles to post on news sites and their Facebooks aren't flagged.

    As with anything connected to newspapers, enabling commentary was a reactionary move, something publishers felt they had to do because stories would be linked to elsewhere and people would engage in discussion on them. Fine. Moving that onto your own website and mingling it with actual journalism has been a disaster though. I love that some chains, like McLatchy, have the balls to let their message forums be a free-for-all so they actually sell ad space there.

    Fuck this two-way conversation bullshit. If the reader has something to say, let him e-mail the reporter.

  8. Since switching to FB, I bet my site has had 200 comments total!

  9. Ditto on that, 9:33. I click on "most commented" stories, and sometimes none show up, or one story with one comment. And we used to be such click whores.

  10. All this says is exactly what we've been evangelizing for years. You need to have rules and enforce them. Yes, you CAN afford to have somebody keep an eye on your comments. You can't afford not to. That one wouldn't have made it through our filters. Oh, and also: Real names, Facebook or otherwise, do NOT keep people from being mean, insulting, etc. The nastiest comments I've ever seen posted in connection with our work have been on our Facebook page, not on our website (where anonymous comments are allowed, and we don't require log-ins, either - you don't have to stand up and announce your name at a public meeting, why should you have to online, as long as you are dealing with a website that has and enforces rules?).

  11. steve abrahamson1/10/2012 3:37 PM

    Why isn't the complete post posted in your blog? There seems to be part of it left out.

  12. I was running long, and I would have needed to include [bracketed] information to explain who certain people were.

  13. As soon as I found out the TENNESSEAN would limit comments to Facebook "members" I fired off a letter to the editor in protest.

    As someone who always fully identified myself when posting to the TENNESSEAN's comments page, I did not understand why, as someone who refuses to join FB, I should be penalized.

    My letter was not published but I did receive an email from the newspaper informing me that my letter had been received.

    Had the newspaper published my letter, readers would have been informed that I fully understood and approved of a policy encouraging civility, but I suggested this could be achieved by other, less privacy-denying, means.

    Among these were limiting posts to hard copy subscribers who would could their respective account numbers to sign in. With circulation continuing to fall, why not use the perk of posting as an additional incentive to buy the newspaper rather than read it online?

    Now that I am relegated to reading posts on the TENNESSEAN's web site, I find most of them to be exchanges posters direct to each other. Typically, these exchanges begin as some reaction to the topic of the article posted above the comments but quickly they degenerate to emotional, personal comments that, in turn, become increasingly off-topic.

    I hope there will be some attention to the "new" discourse and some revision to Gannett's online posting policy once the company is able to concede that the exchanges are hardly more civil than before and certainly no more elevating than much of the prattle that preceded it.

    Stacy Harris

  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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