September 15, 2013

New Facebook commenting system will help elevate debate at mercedsunstar.com

I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with the caustic tone of many story comments at the Merced Sun-Star’s digital home, mercedsunstar.com.

I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with the caustic tone of many story comments at the Merced Sun-Star’s digital home, mercedsunstar.com.

A dedicated and vocal minority too often lets it rip with posts that are eye-popping for their negativity, bile and downright nastiness, poisoning the debate for everyone. Comments from these “trolls” are the No.1 complaint we receive from readers. Quite frankly, we’ve had enough.

So beginning today, readers who want to post comments on mercedsunstar.com will be required to log in using Facebook.

I suspect this will be unwelcome news to those in that minority, and I know it won’t solve all of the problems. But the new Facebook commenting system is different in a big way: It requires readers to log in using their real names. The cloak of anonymity is gone.

Readers for decades have had the guts to sign their names to letters to the editor and other commentaries appearing in the Sun-Star, adding mightily to the community discussion. These signed opinions are powerful because they’re backed up by the credibility of their authors. From today on, that credibility will extend to online comments.

The Sun-Star is not alone in this move. Other newspapers owned by our corporate parent, The McClatchy Co., are flipping the switch today after closely watching an experiment with Facebook comments at two sister newspapers, The Miami Herald and The Charlotte Observer. The editors of those papers report that the volume of comments has dropped but the debate has been lively and civil – exactly the kind of forum we want to provide. ESPN.com, USA Today, the San Diego Union-Tribune and many other news organizations recently made a similar switch.

Concerns about Facebook commenting generally can been grouped into a few themes:

“I don’t have a Facebook page, and I don’t want to sign up for privacy reasons.”

While I understand that Facebook is not for everyone, it is the largest social media platform on the planet, with more than 1.1 billion users who don’t view it as an intrusion. It’s estimated that more than 50percent of Americans have a Facebook profile, and we suspect that percentage is even higher among mercedsunstar.com users. Facebook’s massive reach provides a ready audience of commenters who are signed up with their real names.

“You’re taking away my right to free speech.”

Not true. Anyone is free to comment on mercedsunstar.com, only he or she has to sign in through Facebook and use his or her real name. We haven’t taken away the right to express yourself.

“OK. I’ll fix you guys. I’ll just create a fake Facebook account and continue to spew my venom.”

While not completely foolproof, it’s pretty easy to spot bogus Facebook profiles in the new commenting system. The bozos stick out.

“I want to blow the whistle on something, but I’m afraid of what would happen if my name is used.”

Readers with news tips are encouraged to contact us at webstaff@mercedsunstar.com , and we’ll have a reporter investigate. Your identity will be kept confidential.

Using the new system is simple. If you’re logged into Facebook, you’ll be able to post comments on mercedsunstar.com. If you don’t have a Facebook account, signing up is free, and privacy settings can keep personal information private. We’ve posted a story with frequently asked questions and other information to address any concerns.

We want your participation, and we hope those who were scared off by the nastiness will want to engage. You’ll also find me in there when necessary, answering questions and adding to the debate.

One of the Sun-Star’s most important responsibilities is to offer a trusted forum where the community can vigorously discuss local issues. Today, we take a significant step toward adding civility to the online discussion.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments.

Joseph Kieta, editor of The Modesto Bee and the Merced Sun-Star, can be reached at jkieta@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 578-2356. Follow him on Twitter @JosephKieta.

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