Forum Ethics and Official “Sock Puppets”

Should public officials have the same right to anonymity in public online discussion forums as any other participant? Is it OK to “out” an official — or anyone — in connection to their anonymous or pseudonymous posts to public forums?

Over the last several days these questions have spawned intriguing and thoughtful discussions on Poynter’s Online-News List. (Registered members of this list can check out the full discussions in the list archives.)

It all started with this Oct. 1 post by Damon Kiesow, online managing editor for the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph (republished here with permission):

“We have a local elected official who is active on our forums, but posts using a username (which is allowed) that provides no indication of his/her real name or elected position. We are in an election period and this particular official is off-cycle, but has been commenting on the race and specific other candidates anonymously on the forums. It also became apparent this week that this official has at least three other usernames and is actively using them with no public indication that they are all controlled by the same person. …We are pursuing the story, but looking for any experiences others have had in similar situations, or if anyone sees potential ethical pitfalls on our part.”

Here are a few key points raised during this discussion that Tidbits readers may wish to consider:

  • Is it a form of fraud (or at least deception) or otherwise ethically unsavory to allow forum participants to create multiple user accounts, especially if they don’t disclose this and actively pretend to be several different people? If so, does a news organization have an ethical obligation to prevent such behavior?

  • Do public figures, especially elected officials, have any right to conceal or disguise their identity when making public statements? If so, should there be any limitations on that right? Or must there be a level playing field — if anonymity or pseudonyms are valid options for some community members, must they be available to all?

  • If your community values being able to post anonymously, what effect might outing a public official (or any user) have on that community? How important should this consideration be in ethical decisions about whether to out someone?

  • What role can your forum community play in making this decision, and how might that process be managed?

  • Would outing this particular official violate the Telegraph’s published site policies?

  • Can forum registrations be considered “business data,” and if so are there any requirements to firewall that information from newsgathering activities?

  • If you require real names for letters to the editor, is it proper to also allow anonymous or pseudonymous forum posts? What legitimate or positive reasons might exist for doing so?

  • If the Telegraph does decide to out the official, does it have any obligation to confront the official about his/her behavior prior to publication? That is, is it OK to ambush this official?

What do you think? How have you handled related issues on your news org’s forums? Please comment below.

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