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Real names policy — a note from Jimmy Wales

Talk (21)


Adam R

"With regards to user experience and w..."
Nigel Peacock

Nigel Peacock

"For a site dedicated to reporting acc..."

Joel Drapper

"Agreed. My point is, there has to be ..."
Peter Bale

Peter Bale

"Thanks for this and the danger issue ..."

(Note: I wrote this in the form of an essay from me, but what it should be is a general document. Rather than editing it in that direction right now, please let’s discuss it on the talk page as a starter essay from me, and then after a period of time once we’ve reached some consensus, we can create a more formal policy based on the ideas here. –Jimmy Wales)

WikiTribune has a policy of strongly preferring real names. In this note I want to explain why I’m doing it this way, and what some exceptions are, and also to invite the community to help refine this policy over time.

Wikipedia does not require or even particularly encourage real names, so you might think that I would follow that policy and do the same at WikiTribune. But there is one very big difference. Wikipedia always requires “reliable sources” which is a particular term of art at Wikipedia. What it essentially means is that everything in Wikipedia is ideally traceable to already published information, whether in scholarly publications, reputable news articles, etc.

It doesn’t matter who the author is, so long as the source is good, because anyone can check to see if what is written in Wikipedia matches the source.

Here we have the same approach to quality: we want to be as high quality as we can. But we also are doing something which is not part of the Wikipedia process: original reporting. To do this in a high quality and transparent way, it is important that authors be credible and trustworthy. Real names is one factor in that. (Note well that I am not claiming it is foolproof, nor that it is easy, just that the odds are in favor of it.)

The core idea is that because we are writing original journalism, we should stand behind our words with our real identities.

We don’t have this yet, but in our software we will have the ability (but not the requirement) for authors to connect to their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles – this is an additional way for people to demonstrate who they are. I’m very open to other possibilities as well.

We want WikiTribune journalism to be trustworthy, so we plan to the maximum extent possible to depend on “evidence based” approaches — we don’t just tell you that person X said Y, we offer you the video, the audio and a transcript, whenever possible. That level of transparency extends to the community as well.

There are exceptions. Of course.

There are cases when a community reporter will be working in a very difficult jurisdiction where reporting under their real name could cause them to be harmed. In such cases, our staff editors will have to make a judgment call as to how to handle the situation. Because this is a new project, I am not yet sure what all the factors might be in such a case, but the goal in due course is to develop a robust and subtle policy to make reasoned decisions.

I want your help with this. The plan is to launch with a general policy of strongly preferring real names and to make case by case exceptions where it makes sense. But I would like us as a community to have a reasoned discussion.

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16 March 2018

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Talk for Project "Real names policy — a note from Jimmy Wales"

Talk about this Project

  1. With regards to user experience and website design, the registration window should be more clear about how the provided name will be used, and there should be information about the contexts in which “real name” matters.

    For instance, I encountered the “real name” prompt when I registered with the website. The reason I registered is that I wanted to compare two versions of an article, and the website required that I log in to do so– it hardly matters if I provide my real name for that activity, but the website currently does not make that distinction.

    Having given an abbreviated name, it is not clear to me how that information will be used (even after scanning the privacy policy). Also, it is not clear if I will have the opportunity to provide my full name in the future or if I would have to create a new account (not that it’s a hardship to create a new account). For now,I’m just exploring the website. Maybe I’ll leave a few suggestions on “talk” pages. Maybe I’ll correct a typo. Those don’t seem like things that require publishing my real name on the internet.

    My impression is that there will be some roles in which real names will matter, and some where it won’t. It seems that this discussion is currently focused on people who wish to contribute original reporting. Perhaps a distinction between roles could be formalized on the website with users selecting which roles they intend to play, and then being directed to “best practices” pages for the selected roles (with advice like “use your real name if you are going to contribute original reporting”).


  2. For a site dedicated to reporting accurate and unbiased news, I believe it is essential that contributors use their real name and can be identified.

    At the same time, I would expect to see a picture of each contributor alongside their articles.

    Anything less invalidates the integrity of WikiTribune.

    Conversely, I can see a need for pseudonyms in special circumstances. If a contributor requires that, they should be privately verified by the WikiTribune team. In such cases, should their profile indicate that they are using a pseudonym? Would that devalue the integrity of the site?

  3. Rather than making your own integrations with Facebook and LinkedIn, why not just use Keybase for verification?

    Keybase can already verify Twitter, Facebook, GitHub, Redit, and domain names in a way that’s independently verifiable and not controlled by you or them.

    Each WikiTribune contribution could be signed with your Keybase private key via a simple browser extension, and then it can be verified by anyone either manually or with the same extension.

    It would also mean that neither WikiTribune nor hackers who gain access to the WikiTribune database have the power to change people’s contributions.

  4. I disagree with the real names policy. The amount of character assassination that happens today (especially in the US) for speaking your mind has a very real and chilling effect.

    As a thought experiment, think for a moment about publicly supporting an opposing viewpoint on social media. For example, if you are anti-Trump, imagine posting on social media that you support one of his policies such as the border wall. There would most certainly be a severe backlash from friends and followers.

    It is social suicide to support certain points of view these days. Its far too easy to cut someone down who you don’t agree with and shame them.

  5. I just wanted to post about a thoughtful different point of view that has come to my attention.

    Many women (for example, but there are other categories of course) have long experienced that real names open them up to harassment and trolling online. If we have a too-strong policy mandating real names, we might accidentally limit the participation of women. This is also an issue for paid staff journalists but less so I think, in the sense that if you have chosen journalism as a paid profession, there’s not much avoiding it possible. But if you are a potential community journalist, you pretty much can avoid it – by not participating, which is a terrible outcome.

    This line of thinking might suggest that we should be somewhat liberal about allowing pseudonyms, perhaps with some form of private verification.

    While this view is very different from what I expressed in my first note, I think it’s a view well worth grappling with, to see if there is some third way that makes the most sense.

    1. I think the reason anonymous sources work so well is because we can place our trust in the named journalist to verify that the source is qualified and reliable.

      For example, if a named journalist says, “An Uber employee who wished to remain anonymous said, ‘bla bla bla’,” we trust that the journalist has established that their source is a real human who really works for Uber.

      Perhaps the same kind of principle could work here. If a contributor wishes to remain anonymous, someone who knows the identity of the anonymous source could go on record and approve the contribution.

      1. Joel, thanks for that note. Our current policy on anonymous source is here and it is an important issue.

        1. Agreed. My point is, there has to be someone to put your trust in. With an anonymous source, at least you can put your trust in the integrity of the journalist the reputation of the paper. With an anonymous journalist, it becomes more difficult to determine in whom you’re placing your trust.

  6. Thanks for this, Jimmy. My first reaction was sympathetic, but the more I analyze it, the more I think it at least needs more nuance. Some thoughts:

    1. It might help to ask: real names, as opposed to what?

    • As opposed to anonymous contributions, as are allowed on Wikipedia?
    • As opposed to silly, obviously fake names or handles, such as “warrior4truth”? (I just made that up)
    • As opposed to a non-obvious pseudonym or pen name, such as if I were to write as “Frank Adams” instead of Jason Crawford?

    That is, are we just going to police obviously silly/fake profiles, or are we going to somehow verify real-world identities? Prohibiting obviously fake names might help contribute to a more serious, professional atmosphere. But verifying identities to prohibit pseudonyms doesn’t obviously help with that.

    2. You say: “because we are writing original journalism, we should stand behind our words with our real identities.”

    It might help to break that into a few hypothesized benefits. If your real name and thus real-world identity and reputation are tied to your writing, then what?

    • Hypothesis A: Others can then look you up to assess your credibility.

    This makes sense if you have some credentials or pre-existing reputation. But a lot of people might not have these things. They might only have a reputation through their writing on WikiTribune. Why force everyone to use real names then? Those for whom it is a benefit, can and will; others can if they choose, but don’t have to.

    • Hypothesis B: You might be more careful and objective in your writing.

    Maybe. I am skeptical of this. We know from other online communities that many people are willing to attach their real names to terrible writing and thinking.

    • Hypothesis C: If not quite (B), then you might at least avoid being a bad actor in ways you know are wrong—deliberate lying, for instance.

    This is the most convincing to me. Just like people at neo-Nazi rallies don’t like having their picture in the paper and their names printed, people might think twice before starting a campaign of misinformation or writing outright fabrications.

    3. Identity and reputation are indispensable for online communities. But I’m not sure they need to be tied to real-world identity. Twitter has plenty of pseudonymous accounts that provide a lot of value (although, yes, it also has plenty of trolls). Here are some thoughts from VC Fred Wilson on this:

    And pseudonyms have been used for good throughout history—the Federalist Papers were written under the pen name “Publius”.

    4. I think that at minimum we should accept pseudonyms in cases where a writer might be putting themselves in danger. But what’s the line for that? An active war zone? Reporting on human rights in Saudi Arabia? What about reporting on a sexual harassment scandal in Hollywood?

    This goes back a bit to point 1: Are we going to actively verify real-world identities, or are we just going to crack down on obviously fake/silly ones and have more of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy if you want to sign up under a non-obvious pseudonym? The latter would create a serious, professional atmosphere while still leaving it up to each individual whether they want to participate under their real name.

    1. Thanks for this and the danger issue is covered in this policy on anonymous sources and for me is exactly the kind of questions you describe in point 4. It is a matter of judgment at the time based on sensitivity and experience:

    2. All incredibly good and thoughtful.

      “warrior4truth” strikes me as obviously bad, in no small part because my long experience is that people who come to a discussion/dialogue with a “warrior” mentality aren’t really in the right place in terms of working together with others to reach consensus and greater understanding.

      On the issue of “non-obvious” pen names, see also my comment about women (as an example) who fear online trolling.

      Wikipedia is actually a very good example where pseudonyms do most of the heavy lifting that real names would do. But a real difference is that at Wikipedia there are fewer times when “trust me, I really did this research” is relevant – due to it all being about third party sourcing.

  7. I definitely support a “real names” approach, while at the same time understanding why it would be desirable to make exceptions. Some thoughts:

    – One of the cornerstones of journalism is the use of unnamed sources, because there are times when there is no way to get information unless the reporter agrees not to name the source. Do you see a distinction between requiring the real name of a reporter versus the real name of any sources?

    – In terms of providing a link, Facebook makes less sense to me than LinkedIn (although not everyone has either one or the other) for two reasons. The first reason is that Facebook does very little to verify or authenticate accounts. My dog has an account. At one company where I worked recently we routinely make fake accounts for testing purposes. Any particular user can set their privacy so that someone who is not a friend effectively don’t see anything but their profile picture.

    – Using Facebook (assuming a reporter’s posts are not locked behind privacy controls) might also open reporting staff to ad-hominem-based criticism. For example, if someone who doesn’t know me very well were to look at my Facebook wall over the past two years, I imagine they would gather the impression that I am a “flaming liberal” or something to that effect (despite the fact that I have voted Republican more often than Democrat in elections), and thus dismiss any factual, verifiable reporting that I might provide on that basis.

    – With the above notes, it almost makes more sense to me for there to be some *other* mechanism of authentication…something that might not even exist yet in the form that I am thinking of.

    1. Steve, our proposed policy on anonymous sources is here and yes, we intend to use them sparingly and when justified:
      Regards, Peter

    2. To answer your questions:
      1. Yes, I think reporters and sources are very different in terms of anonymity. To be clear, though, I think the contemporary media have gotten a bit lazy with the overuse of anonymous sources, which is one of the reasons trust in journalism is so low at the moment.

      2. I agree with you completely that LinkedIn is a more valuable signal than Facebook for exactly the reason you stated. I don’t know but I suppose there are probably vast networks of fake accounts / bot accounts on LinkedIn just as there are on Facebook, but contriving a plausible professional LinkedIn profile seems a lot harder.

      3. I really agree with you about some “other” form of authentication, but sadly I also agree that it might not exist yet. There are some very costly methods – for example, asking people to send in a CV and copies of identification followed with a video call. That’s probably a little bit overkill in almost all cases.

  8. Several years ago there was a hyper-local site in Dallas that actually did “verified” accounts where the staff actually voice-verified users and they then appeared on the site as “verified” user. This seemed to work well to add credibility. Twitter does something similar, but it seems more a “status symbol” than anything else (because you only have to be famous/notorious to get verified).
    I could also see a reporter that normally works for another news outlet wanting to provide reporting / material on WikiTribune but also not wanting their “real name” associated with it for career reasons.
    What if the editorial or other staff did some sort of “verification” of contributors who wanted to go through that process and then the contributor was allowed to use a username/pseudonym on the site? Maybe it costs something or requires some effort to cut down on spammed requests so as not to overload the staff.
    Also, “real names” may be a significant challenge going forward. With all of the personal data being leaked online, will anyone really be able to verify that someone is who they say they are online? What if WT allows a “real name” person to post something and then that person turns out to be someone else? Are there legal repercussions?

    1. All good questions.

      I will ask our lawyers in due course, but I don’t think there’s a strong legal risk as long as we are behaving in a responsible fashion. Yes, if we recklessly verified people as being the “real” person without even checking in some reasonable fashion, that might be problematic. But if we take reasonable steps to do it well, I think it would be fine.

      I like your question about reporters wanting to do secret volunteer work on the side because it is a question I hadn’t considered before. My first reaction is that I’m not very keen on it, unless there is some real “whistle blower” reason. On the other hand, if someone works at a day job doing journalism and also wants to help out as a hobby, but their employer might frown on it, I don’t know what I think about that. If they have a contract with their employer forbidding participation on social media sites, that’s one thing – they shouldn’t do it. But if it isn’t about a contractural obligation, just a concern that they’d prefer to pursue their hobby in the evenings without work people knowing about it. I don’t know. Fun question!

      1. Putting in my experience – my day job is within the health & social care sector, and I currently work with prisoners. With that in mind, all writing I have undertaken for exposure online has been under the same pseudonym that I am operating on here.

        If I were to use my real name, I risk being found more easily by employers or clients, which puts my professional reputation at risk (though participating in these activities isn’t against any contract I’m under).

        In these situations, I would advocate for a realistic-sounding pseudonym. If it were possible for me to pursue my interests under my real name (which is an unusual one, making me easily identifiable) then I would.

  9. Thank you for starting this discussion with a solid orientation paper. My first comments:

    – As a former ambassador, I know the risks that sometimes accompany the revelation of identity, place, time, situation. In the context of WikiTribune, I support your proposed policy of true identity as a default position, however with the strong proviso that, in the leadership team, a limited number of go-to individuals be trained to evaluate risks and make decisions case by case. I’d be glad to help.

    – As a community contributor in WikiTribune, I’ve written 5 articles under my real identity, and they cover: ”European Union is more than a trade deal, it’s a set of ideals”; a talk by Larry Lessig in Paris; ”Can the Korean missile crisis be defused?”; ”Could Brexit be reversed: a view from across the Channel; and most recently ”Spain’s constitutional crisis: impact on EU countries” (still pending, it seems). In all these cases, I did the research and drafting, and benefited from editing both by WikiTribune journalists and community members. In a couple of cases, a proposed change of title, or a changed paragraph, would have altered the thrust of the essay, and I would have been less happy to have my name on it. But thanks to the TALK space, I was able to discuss each point with the colleagues who were editing, and I’m happy with the results.

    – For the time being, WikiTribune is only in English. But thinking about lauch in the (hopefully near) future, I would see some usefulness in enhancing awareness, both among journalists and community contributors, to the overall image of WikiTribune we wish to give. Looking at a number of stories in the Beta version, I’m struck by the fact that most links provided lead to US and UK sources (with a few exceptions: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian…). Even in an English-language story, we should strive to diversify our sources, which would help us attain the high standard you have set for yourself and for all of us in WikiTribune. This is linked to the question of real identity you raised, e.g. for an oral source, which would require the degree of care I described earlier.

    – I’m pleased to comply immediately with the request for one of my online links:

    Thanks. Jean-Jacques.

    1. Wow, great comment. I really agree with you about seeking to diversify sources to non-English sources. They aren’t always that useful to casual readers, but it isn’t just the casual readers we are interested in. If someone can speak both English and Russian, and someone says that Russian media is reporting X, a link to that can allow some other English/Russian speaker to verify the claim – or dispute it. That’s super valuable.

  10. My first gut response was yes! Real names are essential to transparency and quality in journalism.

    My second gut response was a gulp. It takes real courage to consciously expose one’s identity in a world with murdered journalists and public internet shaming.

    I’ve only contributed a little feedback so far – hopefully constructive comments, on the beta site – but what risks am I actually taking? And will I be willing to continue making contributions after the public launch? That will be the real test.

    1. So my first gut response is, yeah, hmm, maybe you could use a pseudonym and not confirm and still post comments. Basically, you need a higher level of identity to have a higher position of trust. There is something broadly right in that approach for sure.

      But I wonder. We know that news sites are overrun with anonymous trolls who do nothing but cause trouble. I think I’d rather start from a position of having less participation but of higher quality rather than set a tone similar to other news sites which may have hundreds of useless comments.

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