CBC is in something of a quandary, after it announced Thursday it will bar readers from using pseudonyms when submitting comments to online articles, requiring users to sign up with their real names in hopes of deterring violations to the website's submission guidelines.
It's a problem that defies easy solutions.
Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor in chief of CBC News, announced the policy change in a blog post.
- CBC to require online commenters to use real names
EDITOR'S BLOG Reviewing our commenting policy
Some are skeptical of the move, including Jeremy Hunsinger, professor of communications studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., who says the policy could "open up another set of problems," such as readers no longer wanting to comment.
Although a real name policy could be considered an overhaul of the CBC's comment section, it is not entirely unprecedented in the corporation's history.
'Same procedures as TV and radio'
CBC's and Radio-Canada's online comments are moderated through ICUC, a third-party social media moderating contractor based in Winnipeg.
Users who comment must set up an account and provide an email address, which is not made public. But unlike CBC, the French-language Radio-Canada has required users to provide their full name when they register to comment since 2011.
Pierre Champoux, director of digital news for Radio-Canada, says the move was both for transparency and to "elevate the quality of comments, make them more respectful."
"We wanted to implement the same procedures as TV and radio. People identify themselves to comment on air, so we want to do the same for online comments," says Champoux.
"We want to be transparent with our audience, and we want the audience to be transparent with us."
In order to post a comment, Champoux says, a user has to register and log in to Radio-Canada's membership centre, which requires a full name and an email address.
Although it's impossible to verify every name, moderators intervene if a user name is obviously a pseudonym.
"If people are willing to give us their real names, we will trust them," says Champoux, adding they can't "technically make sure" your name really is yours.
Champoux says the number of comments has risen in the five years since the policy was put in place, noting 10 to 15 per cent of comments submitted aren't approved because they don't comply with the guidelines.
"Tone [of the comments] hasn't changed radically," he says. "We don't agree with all of them, but that is not for us to decide."
Although he adds the policy allows people who did not want to comment before — "for fear of trolls" — to be more inclined to do so after the introduction of the policy, Champoux cannot confirm it to be the cause for the increase.
"I cannot say for sure," says Champoux. "But there has been no negative impact" from the policy.
@CBCNews Thank you. If you are going to comment or take a stand on a topic, stop hiding behind a fake identity.— @bmellon1410
@CBCNews no free speech eh??— @OliLarsen
Champoux says he is willing to offer advice to his English-language counterparts, should they introduce a similar policy.
"I am talking regularly with [CBC's senior director of digital news] Brodie Fenlon," says Champoux. "There is a committee looking at the issue, which we are both on."
"Will they implement [the same kind of policy]? I don't know," he says.
Facebook or Google log-ins a possibility
Hunsinger says there are other ways to "tie data to data" and try to make sure commenters use their real name.
"Some government sites use real, legal names," says Hunsinger.
Sites like those would need "two to three pieces of information, like a name or date of birth" and cross-verify the information from public databases to ensure you are who you say you are, he says.
Hunsinger recommends CBC use a commenting system like Disqus, which allows people to comment on multiple platforms and websites with the same username — which does not have to be the person's real name — by signing into an account with Facebook, Twitter, Google or email.
Champoux says Radio-Canada does not use social media log-ins.
'Not always the best thing'
Some have welcomed CBC's real name policy as a way to clean up the comments section, while others feel it will hinder free and anonymous speech and have vowed never to comment again.
Hunsinger leans more to the latter view, saying real name commenting policies are "not always the best thing."
Although he says they can somewhat reduce online harassment, noting multiple levels of authentication could potentially deter users who "just troll for temporary entertainment," he adds that real name commenting policies would not completely stop aggressive and hurtful comments.
"With real names, people tend to [harass others online] less," says Hunsinger. However, he adds "people bully face-to-face in real life" regardless of whether they know the person's name or not.
Hunsinger also says identities can be easily forged.
Real name policies can work for people "not technologically competent," he says. Identities can be easily "faked, fabricated."
"Full names are supposed to be on Facebook. There are plenty of bots on Facebook," he says.
Hunsinger believes open commenting forums can lead to "positive changes to the world" that can help "inform and improve democracy" and warns real name policies could put off many potential commenters and hinder those ideals.
"What is real name [commenting policies] getting you?" questions Hunsinger. "How much free speech are you getting back?"