Disqus: Bad for Public Discourse?

Category: Social-Networking

Anonymity is mainly to blame for the decline in online civility; people tend to act more irresponsibly when they believe they can get away with it. But a popular website plugin designed to solve that problem may also compromise your privacy. Here's what you need to know about Disqus...

What is Disqus?

The comment sections of blog posts and online news articles can be more interesting and informative than the articles under which they appear. When readers help each other by answering questions and posting helpful links, everyone wins.

On the other hand, comments can be nasty personal attacks or irrelevant (and sometimes offensive) spam posted by software bots. Many an online community has been destroyed by overwhelming volumes of negative comments, as civilized readers leave the site in disgust.

On this website, no logins are required to post a comment, and all comments are moderated by yours truly before being published. I only ask for your first name, and you can fudge if you like. Software filters out the incoming spam, and for the most part, people here are very thoughtful, considerate, and helpful. So thanks for that!
What is Disqus?

But on high-volume sites, human moderation can be quite a chore. To hold users accountable for what they say, many sites – news sites especially – require users to register under their true names. But verifying the identity that a user provides is problematic. Registering one’s identity with multiple sites becomes tediously repetitive, and managing passwords gets burdensome.

Enter the third-party commenting system: a single service at which a user can register one online ID that is valid on multiple independent Web sites. When you log in to comment on a newspaper’s Web site, you’re really logging in to the third-party service provider. You can stay logged in to that service provider and not have to log in on every site where you wish to comment. Commenting becomes easier so people leave more comments. Commenters are not anonymous so comments are more constructive and civil.

The commenting service provider verifies each user’s identity; maintains and improves the software that manages comments; and provides participating Web sites with HTML code that, when embedded in a Web page, displays the service provider’s commenting system. It’s not much different from embedding a YouTube video in your Web page.

But how can users be forced to provide their true identities, or at least encouraged to do so? One method is to require a popular social media account such as Twitter or Facebook. Presumably, people use their real IDs on social media because they want old friends, family, and potential employers to be able to find them. Of course, it is possible to create a fake Facebook account, but the odds that the ID you get is a person’s real ID are increased when you require a Facebook ID.

Third-party commenting systems do work. Incivility and spam drop dramatically after “real names” are required to leave comments. The level of discourse improves. Web site moderators have less work to do deleting spam and offensive or defamatory comments. It’s no wonder that third-party commenting systems are rapidly spreading among news sites from CNN to local TV stations and newspapers.

The Downside of Being Yourself

But there are disadvantages to being known by your true name, and to posting all of your comments through a single service provider. The most widely used commenting service provider illustrates virtually all of these disadvantages.

Disqus.com was founded in 2007 by Daniel Ha and Jason Yah while they were computer engineering students at UC Davis. Its basic commenting system costs Web site operators nothing, so it is readily adopted (optional fees provide enhanced analytics and other services). Disqus is now used by more than 500,000 sites ranging from small blogs to major news organizations such as CNN. If you have tried to leave a comment on a news site lately, you have probably run into Disqus.

There are two ways to create a new Disqus ID. First, you can enter a username of your choice, an email address and password. Respond to a confirmation email sent to the address you provide and Disqus considers your identity “confirmed.” The second method is even easier: enter your desired username and click an icon for Twitter, Facebook, or Google. Any of those three services will authenticate your identity to Disqus. But that’s not all that happens.

Using Twitter for authentication gives Disqus permission to read all of your Tweets and post Tweets to your public Twitter feed. Similarly, using Facebook to create a Disqus ID gives Disqus permission to post your comments to your Facebook timeline; from there, your comment may show up in your friends’ timelines as well, and in the timelines of their friends.

That doesn't mean that Disqus will post random comments on your Facebook or Twitter feeds. The ostensible benefit of this permission is to allow you to post to multiple social media sites while leaving a comment on another site, without having to click an extra “post to social media” icon.

That's Disqus-ting!

But... if you don’t want a comment posted to your friends, followers, and people you don’t even know, you must remember to uncheck the “post this comment” box on the site where you’re commenting. It’s an opt-out system that is easy to overlook. By default, Disqus assumes that you don’t want privacy, and is designed to ensure that you have none.

And incredibly, Disqus makes all of the comments that you post on participating sites available to anyone on the Internet. Each Disqus user gets a public page at http://disqus.com/[YourDisqusID] on which your comments and links to their sources are published. You cannot delete or hide any comments on “your” Disqus page.

Disqus makes cyberstalking and bullying easy and unavoidable. Any Disqus user can follow any other’s comments, receiving notifications when the target posts a new comment somewhere. The stalker (and there may be many) can then leave abusive replies or down-vote the target’s comment so that it is buried. There is no way to block unwanted Disqus followers, as there is on Twitter or Facebook. Disqus disclaims all responsibility for interactions between its users.

Disqus mines the content of your comments in order to send you ads targeted to your inferred interests. Of course, so do Facebook, Google, Twitter, et. al. But comments that you make via Disqus are stored on Disqus’ servers indefinitely, even after you “delete” your Disqus account. Disqus makes no promises about when or whether it might delete stored comments.

Even if you log out of Disqus, it still tracks you across the Web using cookies installed on your device. Every visit to a Disqus-powered Web page triggers a Disqus widget embedded in that page, whether you comment or not. Your IP address, Web browser version, browser extensions info, and other “non-personal” data are transmitted back to Disqus for analysis and sharing with marketers.

Given these hazards, you may want to avoid using Disqus for your commenting needs. If you really want to leave a comment on a website that uses Disqus, I recommend that you do not login with Facebook, Twitter or Google. Use the private browsing feature of your browser (or a separate browser just for commenting). In addition, the email login option, with one or more throwaway webmail addresses will provide even more privacy protection.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome! Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Disqus: Bad for Public Discourse?"

(See all 23 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Bruce
17 Jun 2013

It's a sticky problem. But if the intent is just to send you "targeted ads" then I can't worry about it too much.


Posted by:

Uh, John, Stan, Juan, Sally, Jill, Alex, Barry,Gary
17 Jun 2013

Thank you Bob. This is an exceptional article in many ways.


Posted by:

George
17 Jun 2013

Do anyone know of a way to cancel an existing Disqus account? I visited my Disqus page and was unable to find any clue as to how to close my account.


Posted by:

KatieA
18 Jun 2013

I really appreciated this article, too. It was really very informative.

I recently came across Disqus too, and wasn't sure what it was about, so now I know, thanks to this article. :)

I have to say that I am really saddened by some of the comments that I see people leaving on the internet regarding message boards, news sites, and so on.

What has happened to civility, respect for others, and manners?


Posted by:

Marc de Piolenc
18 Jun 2013

I have a Disqus account precisely because I wanted to avoid the data-mining and linkage possibilities of tying comments to social-media accounts. Now I learn that Disqus is facilitating those very threats by mining data and making it publicly available. Not only that, but they allow tampering with a poster's reputation, without recourse. Charming. Sadly, many sites on which I want to post comments now have NO option to register directly with the site.


Posted by:

Phil
18 Jun 2013

Very useful information. Thanks.


Posted by:

Bryan
18 Jun 2013

Bob, Thanks for the info on Disqus and for taking time to publish your very helpful newsletters. I frequently read "Ask Bob" before I read several products with whom I have paid subscriptions.


Posted by:

Mark
18 Jun 2013

Hey George,

Google is amazing thing for finding info. I just googled, "close disqus account" and here's what I found: http://help.disqus.com/customer/portal/articles/472013-deleting-your-account

Good luck!


Posted by:

Old Man
18 Jun 2013

This is good information. Some sites do have good filtering, while others don't seem to really have any at all. I did complain to one, and have noticed a significant improvement. Sometimes complaining about types of posts, or even individual posters, can be effective.

The information on Disqus is quite interesting. It offered a lot of information that I didn't know. However, I do have an account with them and really don't worry much about it. So far I haven't been stalked (directly) or gotten a lot of additional SPAM. I used the e-mail registration, so maybe that has something to do with it. With what you said, at least I know what to watch for. Thanks.


Posted by:

Paul
18 Jun 2013

Your commentary on Disqus is disappointing and disgusting. As another poster mentioned, I was deluded into thinking the Disqus forum would be a convenient method of commenting and avoid any underhanded activities by the provider.

I use a pseudonym email account to sign up for almost all online activities. I seldom have my real name or information associated to any account. Oddly enough even when making purchases the fact that my shipping name doesn’t match my email name has ever been a problem. It seems the key is that shipping and billing info matches.

Sometimes I wonder though if I am not deluding myself in thinking I am really sheltering myself from unethical advertisers bombarding me with ads or my legal ID and info form those who wish to dig a bit deeper. No matter what email address I send from, it still tracks back to the same unique ISP address. I would guess, on line posts are imbedded with a sender ID too. Some spammers seem to have found ways to mask their ISP but I haven’t figured out how to do that. If I did know a practical way to hide my ISP address, I would most likely do it for most online posts and some emails.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I think you meant "IP address". See http://askbobrankin.com/personal_vpns_for_anonymous_web_surfing.html


Posted by:

Paul
18 Jun 2013

Yes, Thank you Bob. I did mean IP address. I think I have an old age memory lapse and my hard drive hits a few bad spots on occasion.


Posted by:

dadwhiskers
18 Jun 2013

Bob's information on VPNs is quite good, but for all out simplicity, try 'UltraVPN' (UltraVPN v 1.00) by UltraReach, found at this site:

http://ultrasurf.us

The 'UltraVPN' link is the bottom line of this page:

http://ultrasurf.us/support.html

That link is:

http://ultrasurf.us/downloads/ultravpn/v100.zip

If you can't access the site, UltraReach's similar software, 'UltraSurf' can be downloaded here:

https://goo.gl/vqyQs

Read through the site. The original UltraReach software, 'UltraSurf', only encrypts your browser traffic (IMPORTANT: Read the site for critical details about various browser's security requirements), while the newer 'UltraVPN' encrypts ALL traffic from and to your computer. They both route their traffic securely through the UltraReach servers, making it impossible to trace your IP address (Read the site for caveats). There is no installation, they leave no trace of having been run on the system (though I turn off the Paging File to be more cautious), and can be run from a flash drive for portability and security.

There is another UltraVPN software (currently v. 2x) that is not the same software as UltraReach's 'UltraVPN v 1.00' (v100.exe), so use the link above to get the correct software.

Sorry for the overly long post, but I'm an UltraReach nut.


Posted by:

Mary Ann
18 Jun 2013

I had a Disqus account, but when I used CCleaner it deletes passwords. I have never signed back into Disqus.

I think Bob's article is rather alarming and I'm glad he brought this to my attention.


Posted by:

BobD
24 Jun 2013

I just deactivated my Disqus.
And there were my comments. (Lord love a duck, whoever wrote those comments sounds stupid!)
Each comment has a Delete button, which appeared to do nothing. Then I clicked on "You only" to show only my comments. This brought up one of those spinning activity indicators, which won't stop spinning.


Posted by:

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03 Nov 2013

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Posted by:

Festzelte Verleih
29 Jun 2014

The security issues on their system have been going on for months now. There are a few things that I want to get fixed in Disqus festzelte verleih


Posted by:

ymous anon
12 Oct 2014

I post with Disqus because many times there is no other way to post a comment to an article or blog. Comparing Disqus with Facebook or google+, Disqus by far has the nastiest ignorant comments and replies to my comments. On the other hand I do believe in free speech. I do not believe in censoring and free speech leaves us free to admonish and reprimand nasty commentators. And I do also believe in nom de plumes or aliases. Artists and writers have used pen names since time immemorial. My nom du plume is sacred to me and I like to use it as i would use my real name. I use an alias for privay purposes and that is all


Posted by:

David M. Hodges
20 Oct 2014

Interesting article. Nothing in it inclines me to stop using Disqus, however. When I interact online, I pay little attention to comments posted anonymously or under obviously fake names. If persons posting the comments aren't willing to stand by them by correctly identifying themselves, why should anyone take their comments seriously? Besides, if I want to see a lot of unthinking hostility, profanity, and vulgarity, I can just pick up the latest HBO original series on DVD or Blu-ray.

I also wonder why someone who wants to keep his real identity "secret" and who doesn't want his comments generally available to anyone who wants to read them (who wants comment "privacy") is posting a comment rather than sending the Webmaster or article author an email or direct message. Public discourse, it seems to me, is called "public" for a reason.

Re: Disqus' public pages for users. I notice that Disqus' "Edit your profile" has a "Keep my profile activity private" option. I don't know if or how well this function works (I don't use it), but it does seem to address one of your concerns.

Finally, concerning the tracking by marketers/advertisers....I thank these money-driven people daily for making so many worthwhile things available online free of charge.


Posted by:

A
24 May 2017

Great article, thank you! I had been generally suspicious of Disqus previously, and your detailed article confirmed it.

The current 'conventional wisdom' that we should all post under our real-life identities is just flat out dystopian-level scary:

a) it silences anybody who has opinions that aren't mainstream in their employment and social circles, and thus muzzling originality and new ideas
b) people over time will literally tailor their opinions for public consumption, consciously or unconsciously deciding how they *should* think based on how it looks to others.



Posted by:

A
24 May 2017

I also just read the comment above mine, and I have a question for @David Hodges.

Say you were at a cocktail party, having a wide range of interesting discussions on many topics, and the host brought out a tape recorder and said "Tomorrow I'm going to post everything you said, with your real name, on the Internet. This will be a handy searchable database for your r employers, your friends, and anyone who wants to know what you think to look you up and get to know you. If you want to opt out, just raise your hand now and let me know what pseudonym you'd like to use."

Would you, at that cocktail party, decide to rule out the opinions, thoughts, ideas of everyone who chose the pseudonym? Or would you think, yeah, that's just smart.

The thing about the Internet is that it is, in fact, just like that cocktail party, at least to me. I am not ashamed of my opinions, nor am I nasty or pornographic. But I don't want every single thought I have on the Internet compiled in a "dossier" which can be searched by anyone who has access to Google.

I'm not ashamed, for example, that I'm gay. That I voted for Bernie Sanders. That I think we should spend more money on public transit and tax cars heavily to do it. That I think Obama sold out to Monsanto. But all of these are things that I don't necesssarily want linked to my real name when I go to a job interview, or when I meet with a client. I don't lie about myself in those cases, but I mostly choose to not bellow out my personal views and info on my sex life in a professional context. And commenting publicly basically does that exact thing...creates a big linked trail of who I am for anyone to see, and snatches away the option for me to choose when and how to disclose parts of me.

Also, remember, not all of us have names as common as yours. Even with your middle initials, there are a lot of David M. Hodges on the Internet. If you Google my much more unusual name, you find me pretty easily. As a special bonus, since my home address is readily available on the Internet, you could show up for pancakes on a Sunday morning! (But if you do, please call first. Just look up my home number on Google....)


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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Disqus: Bad for Public Discourse? (Posted: 17 Jun 2013)
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