"Engaging the community" is a phrase that is increasingly thrown about by editors, particularly social media editors. Nowadays, "engaging the community" refers just as much to dealing with an online assemblage of people as it does to dealing with a physical, geographical community.
This is all well and good; social media referrals and commenting drive traffic to news sites - but what happens when the people you want to engage start disrupting debate instead of contributing to it?
The practice of delivering threatening or aggressive comments on the Internet is often referred to as "trolling", therefore its practioners are logically named "trolls". "Trolls" seem to find news websites particularly fruitful locations to stick their heads out from under their bridge, deliver some abuse and then return to their daily business.
Why is it so easy for said "trolls" to do this? Anonymity is one significant factor. Recently, Laurie Penny, a columnist for The Guardian, The Independent and the New Statesman, decided to address the issue of those people who target female journalists with misogynistic tirades and often use the anonymous commenting systems to do so.
A piece in the Sunday edition of The Guardian addresses the issue on a wider scale and gives examples of other female writers who have suffered unprompted abuse. Natasha Walter, author and feminist, told the paper: "Under the cloak of anonymity people feel they can express anything, but I didn't realise there were so many people reading my journalism who felt so strongly and personally antagonistic towards feminism and female writers."
How can news organisations help prevent this kind of abuse? The problem caused by trolling is wider than users who target the writers themselves. Often, they direct their frustration towards other commenters, which disrupts debate between readers and is likely to deter others from commenting in future.
A Poynter article from August this year compared the impact that a loss of anonymity can have on a news sites' comments. The case study provided by The LA Times illustrates how the real-name commenting system provided by Facebook significantly reduced the amount of trolling on site.
When the newspaper's own commenting system was the only means of feeding back on stories, some would take the opportunity to deliver abusive comments from behind their anonymous identities. One example, in the above article, shows the user hurling unprompted abuse at a county official who was completely uninvolved in the story and calling other commenters morons. After the Facebook commenting system was put into place, "The level of discourse -- the difference -- was pretty stunning" Jimmy Orr, online managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, told Poynter.
Is that the answer? Remove anonymity from commenting systems? It might help - but it's no silver bullet.
Firstly, if the commenting system you use isn't anonymous - what is it? Many news sites have used Facebook as a method of highlighting personal identity. But will readers want to comment on articles via Facebook? After all, personal identity is more complex than a Facebook profile.
Christopher Poole, founder of 4Chan, recently made a speech at The Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco that condemned online services for their complete failure to express the multifaceted nature of personal identity. This is very true.
It's common practice to use disclaimers to avoid corporate liability for views expressed in twitter posts, which shows that there is clearly a crossover between personal and professional identity - a crossover that equally applies to Facebook. Would you like your parents, family members and colleagues to see the articles that you have read and commented on appear on their Facebook news feed? Many people would be deterred from commenting in such circumstances; on the other hand, when people do comment via Facebook, it leads to more referrals to that article - which is definitely good news.
When it comes to protecting writers, simply removing anonymous commenting may not be enough to stop the problem completely. Those who really want to deliver hate mail don't need anonymous commenting to do it - email works just as well.
Caroline Farrow, a vicar's wife and blogger for Catholic Voices, receives "at least 5 sexually threatening emails everyday." One of which read: "You're gonna scream when you get yours. Fucking slag. Butter wouldn't fucking melt, and you'll cry rape when you get what you've asked for. Bitch." Linda Grant, a former Guardian columnist, told the paper she had given up writing "as a dead loss. In the past, the worst letters were filtered out before they reached me and crucially they were not anonymous."
In brief, losing anonymity may not stop every troll from harassing passing traffic - authors, readers, Billy goats gruff alike - but it may play an important role in protecting journalists from unwanted abuse and encouraging healthy debate and a strong online community.