October 20, 2015

When Facebook's "Real Name" Policies Can Kill

A week ago in:

Social Media Abuse Stories to Shrivel Your Soul

I discussed the wide range of serious problems resulting from social media "real names" identity requirements, with Facebook being the most prominent and important perpetrator of the resulting damage to users.

As I continue to receive associated stories in response to:

Research Request: Seeking Facebook or Other "Real Name" Identity Policy Abuse Stories

there's one particular category related to this area that is clearly among the most horrific. The same sorts of terrifying details are being related to me again and again by different persons, and it doesn't take a genius to see the patterns in play.

We begin with a truism: There are vast numbers of frequent Facebook users who actually hate using it, or at the very least are ambivalent. They use FB for one reason and one reason only -- they've found it to be the only practical way to stay in touch with their peer groups or families who have become dependent on the FB model, and they face being effectively cut off from communications with them (or at least being accused of not caring about them) if they don't follow through with the FB grind almost every day. They feel stuck and trapped. Essentially, they are FB users under duress.

Now we combine this sad fact with another fact. Facebook's "real name" policy isn't actually a real name policy at all. It's a "names Facebook feels look pretty much real according to Facebook standards" policy.

Obviously most persons would be unwilling to hand over their driver's license, Social Security Number, and/or credit card information to establish a FB account. And absent that kind of verification, FB usually has no clue whether the "real looking name" you signed up with is actually your name or not.

A farce? Yep, we could definitely call it that.

And it's a very dangerous farce, indeed.

In fact, essentially the only time that Facebook demands actual proof of identity documents is when the name you've chosen to use on your account either doesn't look like what Facebook considers to be a real name -- or when the name you chose (that typically does appear real) is reported by some other user as potentially a pseudonym in violation of FB rules.

It's this latter case that terrifies many innocent users, that has them living in fear of exposure every day, that gives their adversaries tremendous power over them, and that could actually result in people being injured or killed.

Because one of the most frequent reasons for choosing pseudonyms on Facebook is the completely valid concerns of already vulnerable and victimized persons who feel that they must continue to use FB to stay in contact with friends, families, or others, but for whom exposure of their real names could have devastating real-world consequences.

Estranged spouses, LGBT discrimination and other harassment victims, targets of sexual attacks, the prey of bullies -- the list goes on and on.

I've received reports of such vulnerable individuals being extorted by others, who have threatened to report their accounts to Facebook unless demands were met.

But irrespective of how or why such a person's profile is reported to Facebook's identity squad, the results are virtually always awful.

The targeted individuals are faced with an ultimate sort of "Hobson's choice" -- either be exposed on Facebook if they use their actual name that will subject them to further online and in many cases offline attacks -- or stop using Facebook entirely, cutting themselves off from their support structures and other people they care about. In theory they could sometimes try to create a new pseudonym -- with all the hassles involved with reestablishing contacts and online relationships -- but face the likely prospect of being right back in the same quagmire again in short order.

In practice, this is no choice at all for most persons in this position. They've been terrorized, and Facebook's policies not only set the stage for this abuse, but actively make it worse. Far worse.

As I've noted previously, law enforcement's usual response to these victims of intertwined online/offline violence is the epitome of callousness, generally recommending that victims simply stop using the Internet. A most ignorant and dangerous response.

In an ethical sense at least, it doesn't matter one damned iota what high percentage of Facebook and other social media users don't suffer from these sorts of abuses.

It's our jobs as the designers and maintainers of these systems to ensure to the maximal extent possible that they not become tools for the oppression and destruction of innocent, vulnerable persons.

We can either do this proactively and voluntarily, or wait for pandering politicians to make matters even worse by using these situations as an another excuse to push their own damaging censorship regimes.

If we can't get this right, we will have no valid defenses at all to charges of callousness, hypocrisy, and worse.

And we'll have nobody to blame but ourselves.

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

Posted by Lauren at October 20, 2015 09:45 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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