Facebook has always adopted a ‘real name’ policy where users have to put their authentic names to create accounts. And when needed they had to provide proofs, like IDs or birth-certificates.
This has always been in the center of Facebook’s policy, and their vision of the
future current web.
But since then, Facebook has grown. It has stopped being a startup with a product and become a service. A service that people use as their number one tool of public and private communications; a service that provides easily accessible audience for brands, governments, associations, events, and activists of all kinds.
And that’s what I want to talk to you about.
As Facebook is more and more accessible, they have started realizing that they can’t operate like other tech companies. And they have started adding more and more features and settings to suit needs that didn’t exist before that came with their unprecedented success.
In order to be honest they did more than anyone else has ever done before.
But is that enough?
As I’ve said before, many activists and bloggers dropped their original platforms and started using Facebook as their main tool. Some went by their real names, but many decided to remain under different pseudonyms. These pseudonyms could be arbitrary or relative to the cause they’re defending but these people are known in their communities by these handles.
This was a perfect combination of reach and ‘anonymity’ that allowed for these people to operate in a safer way for them and their entourage. Therefore, Facebook became THE platform for all kinds of activists.
Unfortunately, Facebook’s real name policy can be manipulated to silence and/or to put at risk these activists.
Study case: Tunisian presidential elections
Let us take the recent events that came with the beginning of the Tunisian presidential elections as a study case, and see why this kind of policy fails.
After the announcement of the two candidates participating in these elections, people around the Tunisian web started noticing politically influential profiles (known for their public opposition to one of the candidates) going missing in a very strange and fast pattern.
Most of these Facebook profiles were not using their real names to blog (even though many identified themselves in real lives with these names).
In a few days this massive reporting campaign (allegedly led by one of the presidential candidates against those who were opposing him online) shut more than a dozen accounts (Edit: now we count over a hundred) and forced even more to switch to their real names (Silencing their voices and possibly putting them in danger).
This policy is broken because the reporting system is broken.
All it takes is to have enough people to report a profile all day long and you’re almost certain it will get shut.
Putting the fake-name argument in the top of the reporting list, as the most accessible option, isn’t the greatest idea either.
The entire idea behind the real name policy is to provide a web that is coherent and where people have a centralized cyber-life.This can be achieved in so many different ways, where Facebook could double-check for example of suspicious behavior and require an ID if the user brakes other terms and services and not as a first action.
The point is:
Even though I don’t agree with it, I can see what Facebook is trying to do here. But when you design a feature and it becomes a tool of censorship and oppression, you should rethink it and make it more appropriate for regions like MENA, where in some cases, if your real identity gets revealed, it could mean lots of trouble.