Montana Newspaper Decides To Just Delete Old Comments After People Get Upset About Plans To Reveal Their Names

from the well,-that's-one-solution dept

A few weeks ago, we wrote about a plan by the Montana Standard newspaper to change its commenting policy, publishing the “real names” of any commenters. While we generally think that’s a silly policy for a variety of reasons, the real problem was that it was retroactively applying it to all old comments, despite clearly telling earlier commenters that their names would not be revealed (and potentially violate the newspaper’s own privacy policy). In its defense, the newspaper insisted that (1) anyone who wanted otherwise could contact the paper and have their comments deleted and (2) that while it might have liked to have only applied the policy to new comments after January 1, its content management system wouldn’t allow that. Of course, while that seems like something that, perhaps, should be fixed by the newspaper, I can understand that it might not have the resources to do so.

Now, after there was a public outcry over all of this, the newspaper has come up with what it considers to be a compromise: It will just delete all its old comments, rather than reveal who posted them (thanks to Paul Levy for making me aware of this). Then, going forward, comments will be under the new rules.

Because of certain limitations in our web site?s content management system, The Standard initially announced that unless we received requests from individual commenters for previous comments to be removed, earlier comments would as of Jan. 1 be displayed with real names.

We are concerned that such a change would not be fair to those who are either unaware of the pending change or have not contacted us.

So instead, all comments in the system as of Dec. 31 will be removed, and going forward, on Jan. 1, all new comments will be posted with real names in accordance with the Standard?s new policy.

I like how they claim that they are concerned about it, when the truth is that they seemed ready to push forward with those changes until they suddenly started getting called out for them. Either way, this response seems better than revealing everyone’s names, but still seems fairly ridiculous. It also means that a whole bunch of old comments — some of which may have been valuable — will now disappear from the newspaper’s site. Would it really have been that hard to fix their content management system instead?

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Comments on “Montana Newspaper Decides To Just Delete Old Comments After People Get Upset About Plans To Reveal Their Names”

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21 Comments
seedeevee (profile) says:

The memory hole

I have to admit that many of my comments have gone down the memory hole. Usually sites like The Intercept, FireDogLake or Red State delete me because of touchy moderators/operators . . . These guys just seem like they are cheap.

But c’mon. Fake names and Facebook are like peanut butter and jelly. Do they really expect that to work any better?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: The memory hole

“Fake names and Facebook are like peanut butter and jelly.”

Yeah, although Facebook’s policy seems changeable, it’s not enforced particularly well. I’m personally friends with 2 couples who use a single account with a combined version of both their names. I also have 3 dogs and one building as “friends”, and I had a second account at one point based on Snake Plissken that I used for testing games when I used to work for a social games company. Unless you’re doing something particularly odious, they don’t seem to enforce much.

PaulT (profile) says:

“In its defense, the newspaper insisted that (1) anyone who wanted otherwise could contact the paper and have their comments deleted”

Yeah, not acceptable. Not everyone who ever commented on the site would know about these plans and could be negatively affected by the reveal before they knew about it. There’s also the fact that not everybody would be in a position to complain (people who have died since the comments were posted, people who are otherwise incapacitated or incarcerated).

I accept their excuse that there’s a technical reason why they couldn’t apply the change only to new comments but it’s definitely better to remove the old comments. That’s free added value provided by the community, so they shouldn’t get to keep that value while violating a promise made to the community at the time it was created.

“Would it really have been that hard to fix their content management system instead?”

Chances are it’s an off-the-shelf product or an expensive bespoke system they have no in-house ability to modify. They possibly don’t even have access to the source code, although that’s a wild guess.

Anonymous Coward says:

subterfuge?

It’s also possible that this may have been the plan all along. The sequence of events was highly predictable and the eventual outcome seemed pre-ordained. And now, criticism of a controversial policy has been blunted because “the people wanted it.”

Or are we to believe that the wisemen running the paper were just total idiots who never saw it coming?

Stephen says:

Fixing the Unfixable

Would it really have been that hard to fix their content management system instead?

That would depend on whether they were using a proprietary content management system (most likely) or one they cooked up themselves (less likely)

Changing the former would depend on the system and its flexibility and just what exactly they wanted to change about it. If it couldn’t be changed in the way they wanted themselves then either they would have to try to persuade the system’s owners ro provide them with a custom version or they would have to go out and buy a new version which had the features they wanted.

Either way it would all cost $$$. And who wants to spend $$$ when the far simpler and much cheaper solution would be to throw the unwanted baby out with the bathwater and start afresh?

Anonymous Coward says:

Perhaps their CMS is just this bad, but I’m surprised they didn’t try reassigning all the preexisting comments to a faceless account, say “Old Anonymous Commenter.” That account would be unavailable for anyone to register, so no new comments could be posted under it. All accounts other than that faceless account could have the new policy. The faceless account would have its “real name” set to “Old Anonymous”/”Commenter” so that the CMS does not need a special case to support it. Unless the CMS is just utter garbage, that should be about the same amount of work as deleting all the comments outright, and it allows them to uphold the spirit of their prior promise (no real names), avoids changing the CMS internal structure (which, as others have suggested, might be expensive if they were fool enough to buy a commercial one), and retains the important part of the prior comments: the text, not the attribution.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

” I’m surprised they didn’t try reassigning all the preexisting comments to a faceless account, say “Old Anonymous Commenter.””

That could make reading through old threads very, very confusing and make life difficult in the future if they needed to find out who originally posted the comment for any reason.

The easiest way would probably to have a rule in the CMS when it displays the comments. Those made before 1st Jan 2016 have the original anonymised name, those after get the real name displayed.

But, that could still lead to some issues (say, if a bug caused the wrong name to be displayed) and might cost money to have implemented as an option. Hence, they just delete the lot instead.

“retains the important part of the prior comments: the text, not the attribution.”

Attribution is still very important, especially if something becomes a legal matter.

Blackfiredragon13 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Especially if the old comments were to refer to the other posters by name. Here onTD for example, you see us talking to “that anonymous coward” or “that one guy” And once that comment has multiple people replying, it becomes beyond confusing to figure out who’s talking about who without the identifiable names.

GEMont (profile) says:

Make it useless and nobody will care if it goes away

Methinks this “trend” is simply a way for some web-companies to

a. phase out their comments section and the need for moderation, “naturally”, by making posters identify themselves first, which will quickly eliminate any meaningful comments and thus make the comments section redundant and pointless…

b. eliminate the threat of hostile demands by government spies for identification of posters suspected to be drug dealers, terrorists, dissidents, child molesters, conspiracy nutters, hoarders, intellectuals, bed-wetters, or any of the government’s myriad bad-guys known to be hiding out among the American Public, by preventing posters without the means of creating a false id, from posting anything.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Make it useless and nobody will care if it goes away

You forgot “Basement dwelling pud pullers”…

Didn’t actually leave them out … I just assumed the CIAF BIN SADOJ had already hired all the ‘basement dwelling pud pullers’ for the (public-surveillance) Hydra, (create-a-terrorist) Wizard of Oz, and (drone-assassination) Chicken Little programs.

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