As Huffington Post moves against trolls, what about anonymity on intranets?

Posted on August 23, 2013 4:56 am by | Business | Ethics | Intranets

intranet anonymity
(c) Can Stock Photo
The announcement that the Huffington Post will reject anonymous comments beginning next month has sparked debate over online anonymity. The desire to eliminate trolls from the conversation is certainly understandable. Anybody who has read comments on YouTube videos knows how anonymity can drag the discussion into the gutter. Incivility reaches new levels when there is zero accountability. Pretty much everything evil that has been done online has occurred from behind the veil of anonymity.

But I raised an eyebrow when I read Arianna Huffington declare that “Freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they’re saying and not hiding behind anonymity.” I immediately thought of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, who collectively published scathing commentary under the pseudonym Publius. Benjamin Franklin’s incendiary words appeared under the byline Silence Dogood. If they and other revolutionaries weren’t qualified to employ freedom of expression, who was?

Still, the vile scribblings of an Internet troll hardly rise to the level of well-educated and thoughtful leaders of a movement. How, though, do you ban one use of anonymity and not the other? And, while anonymity allows scumbags to make illegal threats and offer disgusting perspectives, it also emboldens the disenfranchised to express themselves. Remember the wife of the Electronic Arts employee who anonymously posted about the company’s working conditions? Her husband surely would have been fired had she identified herself, yet her blog eventually led to improved conditions And how many pro-Democracy bloggers in Egypt would have found themselves in jail subject to beatings had they been required to publish under their real names?

Of course, we’re only talking about comments to the Huffington Post here, not the entire Net. Plenty of outlets have already taken steps to end anonymity simply by using Facebook’s commenting system, which automatically attaches your Facebook identity to your comments, or systems like Livefyre, which authenticate identity.

Among all the conversation about HuffPo’s move, though, I haven’t seen anybody address anonymity on the other side of the firewall. Should employees be able to post comments anonymously on their employer’s intranet?

In most cases, I intranet anonymity is a bad idea.

The question of anonymity inside an organization is not based on employee desire to behave like a YouTube troll. After all, if you say something vile enough, IT can probably dig into server logs and track you down. At issue is the simple worry of expressing oneself when management (or your own boss) might disagree—and make you suffer as a consequence.

Commenting on articles was one of the earliest social opportunities on intranets, yet in most organizations you see very few employees commenting. When I work on communication audits, employee focus groups usually reveal that employees find it safer to just stay quiet than to become visible over a comment that some higher-up won’t like.

Anonymity is not the answer. The problem with intranet anonymity is that it shuts down the chances for making new and important knowledge connections. If I read your comment and conclude that you’re not only really smart but that you’re smart about things that will help me do my job—if I want to tap into your knowledge as a resource—that’s impossible when your comment was posted anonymously. In the company—where rules, policies and guidelines apply to online interaction, unlike the freewheeling Internet—establishing points of knowledge connection is a goal.

As for fear of leaders who take exception to what you’ve written, as long as the comment adheres to clearly communicated policies, they should adhere to the rules established for them and shut up. They might even lower their defenses and listen to alternative points of view.

I remember when I worked for ARCO’s employee communications team, back in the days when print was the driver of employee communication. We produced an article outlining our leadership’s position on the energy plan proposed by then-President Jimmy Carter. A letter to the editor arrived from a landman based in Oklahoma explaining, point by point, why the company’s position was misguided. Because the landman had signed his name to the letter (we required a real name, but would publish anonymously at the writer’s request), the letter appeared in the next issue of the weekly newspaper, the ARCOspark. Most readers assumed the landman was in for some unpleasantness for voicing a view contrary to that of the president and the CEO. They were surprised when, instead, the president and CEO flew the landman to corporate headquarters for lunch so they could pick his brain.

These kinds of stories will spread through the organization and change the culture from one of keeping your head down and your mouth shut to one in which you feel free to express yourself. Changing your culture to support an open exchange of ideas should be a priority if you allow commenting on articles.

There are times when anonymity is acceptable on an intranet. For example, if a layoff is imminent, a forum where employees can express their concerns anonymously can help surface answers to questions that might otherwise not get asked. And if your culture is one in which people who raise their hands routinely have them cut off, starting up commenting with anonymity can work, as long as the goal is to phase it out as the culture changes. Besides, there’s always some employees who simply won’t care about the consequences; they’re going to by-God sign their names to their comments and stand by their convictions. When they don’t get fired (or when they get invited to the C-suite for lunch), others will start to follow suit and a requirement to sign comments can follow.

Ultimately, while the intranet is like the Web, it’s not the Web. It’s a company-owned asset meant (if often not implemented) for productivity and efficiency, for knowledge and information sharing among employees who by virtue of their employment agree to abide by basic rules. Under most circumstances, having to identify yourself should be one of those rules.

What about your company? Is anonymity permitted on your intranet? Under what conditions? And how’s it working out?

 

Comments

  • 1.I don't have a comment on Intranets specifically, but regarding the use of Facebook to make commenters' identity known, the Chicago Tribune made this move a while back and I have observed no change in the virulence, personal attacks, and bigotry expressed in readers' comments.

    Either the nutjobs take care to set up special fake Facebook accounts or they just don't care what people think of them. It's bizarre.

    Rob Biesenbach | August 2013 | United States

  • 2.Shel -- As with many things, the answer need not be either/or. On intranets I've manged, we've allowed both attributed and anonymous comments -- but treated them differently. Allow me to explain.

    For most interactive elements, including stories, blogs, and idea generation systems, attribution is the default setting. When employees comment, their identity is automatically sensed from their network login, and their comments are immediately posted for all to see -- with a link to their personal pages on the intranet. (Any delay or embargo would thwart immediate gratification and disrupt the flow of conversation.)

    Comments are required to adhere to stated guidelines -- no personal attacks, no leaking of sensitive information -- but the guidelines begin with statements of encouragement and trust. We then go on to list the consequences for betraying our trust. Plus, we archive every comment, and attach them to each employee's personal page. That way, you can see every comment an employee has ever made. With such exposure, most employees behave professionally.

    However, we also would allow anyone to comment anonymously if desired. These comments, though, would NOT be posted immediately for all to see. Instead, they would go only to the intranet editors, who could re-post them or forward them to company officials as necessary.

    You may ask: what was the most common use of anonymous comments? To my surprise, employees used the anonymous route to point out typos on the intranet -- they wanted the editors to make the corrections, but they didn't want to publicly embarrass the authors for their typos.

    Like you, I favor attribution for the connections it fosters. Still, I believe it's important to offer anonymous outlets, too. One of our more popular anonymous offerings: a weekly multiple-choice poll, which always asked business-specific questions.

    William Amurgis | August 2013 | Columbus, Ohio

  • 3.William, thanks so much for the contribution. The approach makes perfect sense and mirrors the one ARCO took with letters to the editor for the print publication so many years ago. (That is, we'd publish the letter as an anonymous one as long as WE knew who it was. This was generally to ensure it was really an employee and not somebody claiming to be an employee but in actuality was an activist or critic or competitor. Since letters often came through the U.S. Postal Service and authorship couldn't be validated as easily as it can from a network, this was a legitimate concern. And, since all copy was reviewed and approved, all letters -- anonymous or signed -- were included in the process. Ahh, life was so much simpler with a weekly printed newspaper!

    Anonymity also makes good sense with polls; I hadn't considered that as I was writing the post.

    Shel Holtz | August 2013

  • 4.I find it disconcerting that Huffington Post is so concerned about "trolls," yet not concerned with the most predominant privacy abusers it expects its community to link up with. Facebook, really?

    demsd | December 2013 | USA

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