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Trolls, assaults and vitriol: what to do about anonymous comments?


“What worries me is less the vitriol and verbal assault on the person whose article is being attacked and more the damage that is being done to the brand that is the IFA.”

So read part of an email sent to me a few months ago by an adviser who wanted us to ban anonymous comments. By the time I’d received the email we had already put plans in place to significantly overhaul the commenting facility on our website.

But the paragraph stood out as encapsulating the key factor which swung the heated arguments we had been having internally about the changes we needed to make.

You may have noticed we relaunched and redesigned the Money Marketing website a couple of months back (we hope you like what we’ve done with the place).

One of the big changes we’ve made is to tighten up the comments section. We’re hoping most readers will feel confident enough to leave their real name when posting comments and will be attracted by the opportunity to boost their profile amongst their peers and the wider media.

The new reader profiles allow you to add a picture and short biography/blurb about yourself and/or your firm (including website, twitter handles etc). Your profile will be linked to each comment you leave and users will be able to see a list of all your comments below your profile.

Personal finance and business journalists from across national newspapers, TV, radio and consumer magazines regularly read the website and most are always on the look out for new advisers to add to their list of contacts. Regular contributors with something interesting to say are likely to catch their eye.

The profiles are a great way to raise the profile of your firm alongside other social media and marketing strategies. They should feature prominently in Google searches. Here’s Billy Burrows’ profile as an example.  

We do get some decent comments from individuals who are unable to leave their real names due to the company they work for (eg insights from within insurers, asset managers and lenders which would have their head of communications choking on their skinny Mochas if they were attributed).

We don’t want to lose these interesting and valuable perspectives from the website and so we still allow users to post under a screen name. Again these users can include an image and a blurb about themselves and their profile will link to all the other comments by the user.

In this way we obviously aren’t banning anonymity on the site but we hope that the ability for users to see all the other comments this “screen named” reader has posted will give you a good sense of where they are coming from (and whether you want to listen to them!).

Advisers have been used to working under the shadow of a heavy handed regulator and we understand the concerns of some regular posters who feel they are unable to express their full and frank opinion of the regulator under their real name. But we are hoping that the benefits of leaving your real name will far outweigh these worries and mean that most people will want to- which seems to be the case so far.

I also think the perceptive criticisms often expressed in our user comment section about public policy and new regulations are likely to be taken much more seriously by regulators and politicians if people are prepared to put their real names to the comments.

This brings me on to Almary Green managing director Carl Lamb’s opinion piece in this week’s Money Marketing regarding ”trolling” and concerns that unprofessional comments were left on a rival media website under the name of one of his colleagues who also features prominently in the press.

Now some people seem to use the word “troll” to refer to any other poster who has an opinion that is in anyway different to their view of the world and who expresses themselves in anything other than the politest terms. 

But in this case I totally understand the concerns of Carl and his colleague.

To be fair to the rival website, this is something that could happen to any media site (including our own). Even with tight controls and email verification in place it is possible for people to assume the identity of others if they really want to.

From our perspective, the MM team pre-moderate any comments that go up on the site. When you leave a comment four or five of us receive an email and someone will quickly check the comment before it is published.

This might seem like quite a burden when we can receive over 2,000 comments a month but we find it works well and also ensures the team is always aware straight way of any interesting reactions coming through or new angles to follow up.

Nothing is ever perfect and we continue to think about ways we can improve the functionality of the site. Please let us know what you think about the changes we have made and any other suggestions for improvements we should be making.

Paul McMillan is group editor at Money Marketing- follow him on twitter here 


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There are 23 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Alistair Cunningham 10th January 2014 at 9:06 am

    Allow me to be the first (it seems) to say this is a welcome development. The veil of (false) anonymity is certainly harmful, and whilst there does exist a raft of legislation and other means of recourse to those who are slandered, any responsible publisher should be taking these steps.

  2. Christopher Lean 10th January 2014 at 9:11 am

    Perhaps one way for a moderator of comments to deal with the issue of anonymous comments could be to have a tick box ” Anon” and then the person that wants to remain anonymous has to provide a reason.

    The moderator is then free to make a judgement call to post, or not post, the comment.

  3. Well done Paul – this is a very positive step forward for professional Journalism and equally supports the on-going evolution of the Financial Planning profession. Readership value and overall perception can only benefit as a result.

  4. E L Wisty (an only twin) 10th January 2014 at 9:38 am

    As always, a very erudite and sensible article by Paul.

    Being someone who uses a ‘screen name’, I do appreciate that those posting under the cloak of anonymity can cause hurt to others, and lower the reputation of the financial services community (not to mention sleepless nights for Paul and his lawyers). It also soon becomes very boring when some half-demented poster goes off on one.

    To be fair, many people post in the heat of the moment, and forget how wide ranging the internet is. However, over time, familiarity, articles such as Paul’s and the news reports about people being sent to prison for throw-away comments on Twitter will curb such behaviour.

    Nonetheless, the right to anonymity must be preserved in order to allow free speech – particularly as our community is exposed to a ruthless and political regulator which would rather IFAs just shut up and not challenge the shameless behaviour that we have seen in recent years.

    So, let’s make 2014 a year when we are kind and loving to fellow human beings (and even SJP salesmen), and avoid the temptations of on-line abuse – while still standing up for the principle of independence and the need to hold the FCA to public scrutiny.

  5. I sympathise with those who wish to post but are constrained by their position or employer.
    I would have thought 2 measures would help.

    1. As has already been mentioned in order to be allowed to post anonymously or under a nome de plume, good reason has to be given to the moderator. The idea of not upsetting the Regulator is a fatuous one in my view.

    2. Any anonymous poster (and named one too!) who has posted abusive or otherwise unacceptable posts to be banned outright – shouldn’t be too difficult to manage.

    You can be polite while being excoriating. Bad manners make the poster look stupid. (Which it would seem many culprits are).

    PS. Ed – When are the issues with Windows IE 11 going to be resolved?

  6. Dear Alan

    Many thanks for baldly confirming what I have suspected and been ‘moaning’ about for years – even when I was on the council. The organisation runs at the behest of those that pay the piper. Quite naturally. These payers are the Networks and the large players. Their aims and objectives rarely coincide with those of the small adviser. Indeed it could be argued that they were never truly independent anyway and I don’t think I’m being unduly polemic when I say that they were never representative of what is best in the advice sector and tended invariably to hold standards down.
    That is not to say that there were (and perhaps still are) some very good firms within their ambit, but I would guess they are the exception not the rule. One wonders how many of the good firms will be leaving over the next few years.

    I am wrestling with the decision whether to renew my membership of APFA and your statement hasn’t helped towards a positive conclusion! From my perspective the best thing that has happened at APFA over the past year is that SJP hasn’t joined.

  7. Last post to wrong article. Re APFA – Please withdraw I will re-post.

  8. Trolling is a huge issue and i personally think that making a comment on an internet forum anonymously should be a very rare occurrence. Having said that i don’t think i’ve ever read a comment on the MoneyMarketing website that could truly be described as trolling. Disagreements yes, different point of view yes but trolling, no. The reason that i read the MoneyMarketing website is to take on board these different points of view from people who have either more experience or different experiences within the industry than me. All in all i have no problem with the changes that you have made to the website, well done.

    Just one point that bothers me though. In the ‘Your Views’ section of the website please return the number of comments ticker. It helps me keep track of whether or not more people have commented rather than having to click into the article each time. Just me being pedantic though.

  9. A welcome step forward and well over due.

  10. Absolutely the right approach, Paul. This is why Money Marketing is leading the retail financial services trade publishers. Professionals have nothing to fear from putting their real name to comments.

  11. On one hand freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and who are prepared not to hide behind anonymity. However, the regulated world does not operate according to the normal standards of an open and fair society.

    Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), the FCA has powers to conduct surveillance and information gathering:

    Under RIPA the FCA is able to:
    • acquire data relating to communications, for example itemised telephone bills;
    • carry out covert surveillance;
    • make use of covert human intelligence sources (CHIS) ie. informants; and
    • access electronic data etc.

    This is the same piece of legislation that has been criticised for empowering local councils to “snoop” on the public.In 2010 there was a consultation process to review this exemption and I believe the regulators would like wider powers. As it stands the FCA is not able to obtain warrants to intercept communications during the course of transmission ie. they are not permitted to wiretap telephones.

    The problem being I could post very intelligent, thought provoking comments. Yet if my regulator should happen upon my comments in a forum with my name attached, it could be problematic. In theory, I could avail myself as a target and lose my livelihood for no reason other than my personal opinion which I am expressing and which has no bearing whatsoever on my performance as an regulated adviser. .
    Call it extreme paranoia but consider how the RDR debate was frustrated and hijacked where even parliament was denied the truth.

  12. I don’t have a real problem with anonymous posters per se but I do wonder when people use anonymity to express a fairly vanilla opinion and tend to ignore anonymous posts at the other extreme.

    The great news is the FCA cannot close you down or fine you for having an opinion – even if that opinion is that they are useless…

  13. I would disagree that fear of the regulator is a reason for anonymous posting, I would very much doubt that they would monitor and act based on anything said on a forum.

    I do however believe that many people are parts of organisations where senior staff actively discourage giving open opinions and therefore anonymity is their only option. Not allowing these people to have a level of anonymity would almost certainly reduce the scope and depth of many debates.

  14. @Simon Webster | 10 January 2014 11:54 am

    You say: “the FCA cannot close you down or fine you for having an opinion”

    I say:

    The Lord’s Prayer has 66 words.
    The Ten Commandments have 179 words.
    The small FSA/FCA handbook 400,000 words
    The FSA/FCA handbook has approx 4,000,000 words.

    With 400,000 to 4,000,000 words in the regulatory Rule Book we are all in breach of something or other! The Leviathan is still at large!

  15. @Matthew

    Some years ago I was visiting the Wharf and was asked about a press article about the company that had appeared that morning (we arrived at 10.30am). Having been initially impressed with the diligence of the person we were meeting I was told that the FSA actively monitor the financial press. It is done on a daily basis and provided as a ‘pack’ each day to interested members of staff (usually by early to mid-morning). It defies belief and logic that they would do this and then not act on any information they gather.

    From my own perspective I fall into the category of being a senior member of staff of a company but wish to express personal opinions. My name is inextricably linked with the company and separating the two isn’t possibly in this context which wouldn’t be fair on them. As a result I post anonymously although I don’t think there is anything in my posts I wouldn’t be happy to discuss face-to-face in a more private setting.

  16. Thanks for all the comments.

    @Matthew We have had instances in the past where advisers who have criticised the FSA in MM have then had a phone call from the regulator. Now this may be simply to set out their position further or find out more about the adviser’s concerns but I have some sympathy for those working in such a highly regulated environment who feel they cannot be as full and frank in their public criticisms of the regulator as they would like to be.

  17. All good comments above. Keep up the good work MM.

    The FCA do read what is posted by all of us as I have had two calls from them as a result of my postings. One of which has resulted in a lot of grief for us AND the regulatory member of staff who seems to have a problem reading and a serious attitude problem.

  18. All comments are subject to the imprimatur of a moderator before they’re posted. If a moderator considers a comment to be unsuitable for whatever reason, particularly if it’s abusive or insulting, s/he can either block it or perhaps send an email to the commentor saying that the message will be posted only under the commentor’s real name. That may give rise to difficulty verifying the commentor’s true identity, but it shouldn’t be an insurmountable one.

  19. Hi Paul, really important article. I have no issues with anyone presenting a persona for whatever reason they deem important, so long as it’s consistent and constructive (in fact I’ve long been intrigued to see who sits behind some of the screen names)

    What I do object to is the mindless, cowardly retorts posted anonymously by individuals who just don’t appear to possess a backbone.

    MM forums are an important source of opinion but I think we’d all rather know who that opinion belongs to.

  20. There are those that need the protection of anonymous posts just as the press needs to be free of press regulation. I might also add that I’m also against political or regulatory press regulation!

    The only reason we had any debate at all about RDR was because of the press and notably Paul McMillian. Look how AIFA, the Networks and PFS represented our industry! These are all historic examples of why regulated advisers need special dispensations to speak up.

    Anonymous posts are needed because the FCA is not answerable to any higher authority, even parliament and this is a risk to our rights. Because it is unaccountable the FCA is an abuse of power in a democratic system and as such a danger to all who dare speak up. Many larger firms will not allow their staff to speak in open forum and anonymous posts give them their voice.

    Without this freedom we are at risk of a regulatory invisible suit made from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. Nobody can see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of attracting the attention of an all powerful regulatory.

    Therefore, anonymous posts should be permitted for regulated advisers. We should have the bloggers equivalent to the Fifth Amendment i.e. the right against self-incrimination when commenting.

  21. I am honestly shocked and amazed that anyone has been held to account by the regulator by anything they may have said online. Unless the post alluded to some breach of FSMA or suggested illegal practices; opinion is covered by the human rights act – Art. 10 (except of course any threatening or abusive behaviour).

  22. @Matthew | 13 January 2014 10:08 am

    The Human Rights Act has never conferred protection upon financial advisers. This is a debate that has been discussed ad nauseam but consider S228(2) of the Financial Services and Markets Act which empowers the FOS to impose on firms “such steps as the ombudsman considers just and appropriate (whether or not a court could order those steps to be taken” – S229 (2)(b). So how does this fit in with Article 6 & 7 of the European Convention?

    The European Convention On Human Rights Article 6 provides for a right to fair trial, open justice, hearings in public by an independent and impartial tribunal. This applies to criminal and civil rights. Article 7 No Punishment Without Law!

  23. headbelowthe parapet 13th January 2014 at 2:31 pm

    Personally I think that the protection offered by the moderation of comments by MM staff is adequate to prevent the trolling issue, as to the question of anonymity that is another matter. I post under a nom de guerre primarily because I do indeed mistrust the regulator. This is not paranoia, I don’t believe the organisation itself is going to get me, but I am wary of the biases of individuals who might, in the words of Kipling, twist the words I’ve spoken to make a trap for fools. Hopefully that opportunity won’t present itself; but, I believe caution is probably sensible.

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