The Huffington Post has declared an end to online anonymity to meet the needs of ‘the grown-up Internet.’ The public editor of the Toronto Star writes that such a bold move is a step in the right direction. 

 By Kathy English, Toronto Star public editor

Would an end to online anonymity mark the dawn of online civility?

Call me cynical, but I doubt that simply demanding real names in digital discourse would halt the culture of nastiness and bullying that pervades too much of the Internet.

Still, I regard such a bold move as a step in the right direction to aiming to create a culture of better behaviour online. I was thus heartened this week to see that Internet media magnate Arianna Huffington has declared that the Huffington Post will end anonymous comments next month.

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As first reported Wednesday by the online technology and media site, GigaOM, Huffington said that the online news aggregator she launched in 2005 and sold to AOL in 2011 will require its extensive community of commenters to use their real names when voicing their views. Huffington Post Canada is part of this new measure.

This is a significant development in the ongoing debate about online anonymity.

Since its founding, “HuffPo” has reportedly published more than 260 million comments, the bulk of them anonymous or pseudonymous. But as Huffington told reporters in Boston Wednesday, “Trolls are getting more and more aggressive and uglier. . .

“I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and not hiding behind anonymity,” Huffington said. “We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet.”


Predictably, Huffington’s pronouncement sparked much debate online about whether anonymity should be blamed for the ugly “trolls” of the Internet and the challenges of verifying identities online.

That’s a debate that has played out for some time in news organizations throughout North America, including here at the Star. Readers repeatedly ask me why the Star’s requirements for publishing online comments are not in line with those of the newspaper’s Letters page, where those who want to have their say must identify themselves.

These readers expect some measure of civility from all content published on the Star’s many platforms and lay the blame for the nastiness that too often predominates in online comments squarely on the fact that people can hide behind anonymity.

As I told you last month, the Star has launched a new commenting system that includes a Community Code of Conduct that spells out the Star’s — and its many readers’ — expectations that commenters “maintain respectful and civil discussion.” The new system allows readers to flag questionable comments for subsequent moderation.

At that time, digital editor John Ferri told me this issue of anonymity is open for discussion at the Star. Moving forward, he and his team hope to experiment with opening some topics for commenting only to those who identify themselves with real names.

That column resulted in numerous emails from readers voicing support for an end to anonymity in the Star’s online comments.

To continue reading this column, please continue to the Toronto Star, where this column originally published.

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.