October 08, 2015

Why Facebook's Dangerous "Real Names" Policy Is Like the NRA and Guns

This posting isn't about the monsters of the NRA, their minions, and their blood-soaked hands. But it is about facing reality, not ignoring data, and about harm caused to real people, especially those who are already marginalized in our societies. As we'll see, in these respects there is a disquieting parallel between Facebook and the National Rifle Association, which once glimpsed can be very difficult to put out of one's mind.

I've talked many times before about the dilemmas associated with social media "real name" identity regimes, which attempt to require that users be identified via their actual "real world" names rather than by nicknames, pseudonyms, or in various anonymous or pseudo-anonymous forms.

At present, Facebook is the globe's primary enforcer of a social media "real names" ecosystem. And despite a mountain of evidence that this policy does immense harm to individuals, they have held steadfastly to this model. Google+ initially launched with a real names policy as well, but one of Google's strengths is realizing when something isn't working and then adjusting course as indicated -- and Google+ no longer requires real names.

Facebook's intransigence though is reminiscent of -- oh, for example -- being faced with overwhelming evidence that as gun availability increases gun violence increases, and then proposing even more guns as a solution to gun violence.

Facebook can claim that real names don't hurt people, and the NRA can claim that more guns are safer than less guns, but only sycophants will buy such bull in either case.

The original ostensible justifications for real names requirements have been pretty well shredded into tatters over the last few years.

It seemed pretty clear that Facebook has hoped all along to leverage a "one name, real identity" model into Facebook becoming a kind of universal identity hub, that users would broadly employ both online and in many cases offline as well. Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously said, "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." This view is a necessary component of Facebook's ongoing hopes for real name monetization across the board.

Facebook's "universal identity" model thankfully hasn't really panned out for them so far, but they certainly moved to try push their real names methodology into other spheres nonetheless.

One obvious example is the Facebook commenting system, widely used on third-party sites and requiring users to login with their Facebook (real name) identities to post comments. A supposed rationale for this requirement was to reduce comment trolling and other comment abuse.

However, it quickly became clear that Facebook "real name" comments are a lose-lose proposition for everyone but Facebook.

There's no evidence that forcing people to post comments using their real identities reduces comment abuse at all. In fact, many trolls revel in the "honor" of their abusive trash being so identified.

Meanwhile, thoughtful users in sensitive situations have been unable to post what could have been useful and informative comments since Facebook's system insists on linking their work and personal postings to the same publicly viewable identity, making it problematic to comment negatively about an employer, or to admit that your child has HIV -- or that you live a frequently stigmatized lifestyle, for example. In some cases potentially life-threatening repercussions abound.

On top of all that, failures of these real name commenting systems give major third-party firms a convenient excuse to terminate existing comments completely across their sites, rather than making the effort to moderate comments effectively.

And much like the NRA's data-ignoring propaganda, the deeper you go with Facebook the more ludicrous everything gets.

Facebook's system for users to report other users for suspected "identity violations" would seem not particularly out of place in old East Germany under the Stasi - "Show us your papers!"

Users target other users with falsified account identity violation claims, causing accounts to be closed until the targeted, innocent users can jump through hoops to prove themselves "pure" again to Facebook's identity gods. Many such impacted users are emotionally wrecked by this kind of completely unnecessary and unjustifiable abuse.

There are other related issues as well. In a new public letter, a large consortium of public interest groups are asking Facebook to change or ideally end their real names policies, and have suggested that in some parts of the world such policies may actually be illegal.

Yet this really isn't all about Facebook, even though Facebook is unarguably the "800-pound gorilla" in the online identity room.

In a world where (for better or worse) our Internet access and content increasingly funnels through a relative handful of large firms, and governments around the world are rapidly embracing censorship, it's more important than ever that individuals not be stuffed into "one size fits all" identity regimes.

We must not permit online anonymity and pseudo-anonymity -- both crucial aspects of legitimate free speech -- to become effectively banned or criminalized.

Mistakes made in these policy realms today could significantly and perhaps permanently ruin key aspects of the Internet going forward, and these are matters that must be dealt with logically and based on data, not emotions.

To do otherwise is basically like playing Russian roulette with the potentially unlimited wonders of the Net itself. And while that might enrich the gun merchants who don't care whose brains the bullets splatter, for the rest of us it would be a very sad outcome indeed.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at October 8, 2015 10:17 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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