Luke Allnutt has a thoughtful piece on RFE/RL asking the above question: Would anonymity help activists on Facebook? His response, “maybe not,” relies on the idea that anonymity would be extended only to those with special “activist status,” something I haven’t heard concretely argued as a potential model but which is nonetheless troubling. Allnutt writes:
If Facebook had a special “activist’s status,” where it officially allowed some accounts to be pseudonymous, where does it draw the line? I would assume that as long as they’re not advocating violence or hate speech, then any activist would be entitled to such protection– that would mean Middle East democracy fighters, but also anti-gay groups or guys from the English Defense League. Who gets to choose which activists are acceptable and which aren’t?
Connected to the first point is the logistics. How would one prove they are an activist to get a special status? It’s not like activists can fax off their membership cards even if they had them, especially with a move toward more leaderless, loose groupings.
First off, since I’m quoted in his piece, I’ll say this: I have never, and would never, argue for a special status for activists on Facebook. Which bring me to my next point: How we got to the anonymity argument in the first place.
A year ago, as I was beginning to write Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere, I considered, briefly, arguing for anonymity on Facebook but then decided it was a waste of time. Like Allnutt concludes, “Facebook isn’t going to change its real-name policy.” Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree, and thus have–until recently–made that a low priority in my arguments against the company.
Rather, there are a few other fundamental issues at stake regarding the platform, which I believe would go far in solving a large number of the issues activists face with the real name policy. You’ve heard most of this before, but hear me out:
- Facebook’s Terms of Service are still not available in major world languages. I haven’t done a recent count lately, but last I checked, the platform was available in 100+ languages, but the TOS were only available in 7. A quick check shows that the TOS still aren’t in Arabic or Persian. Again, I will ask: How can someone consent to a set of rules that they can’t read in their native language?
- Facebook offers a limited appeals process that sometimes requires sending in government-issued ID. So, let’s assume for a moment that a person using their real name–like Najat Kessler did–has their account deactivated, erroneously, for using a pseudonym. That person will be, in most cases, asked to send in a government-issued ID. Am I the only one that sees major security risks in doing so? I realize that Facebook is trying to protect against spammers in this instance, but if someone has a well-formed name, with photos of him or herself, I simply don’t understand the harm in taking them for their word. Which brings me to my next point…
- Where’s the appeals process? In a perfect world, someone like Najat Kessler would be able to easily assert her identity when asked, and be taken on her word. But in Kessler’s case, she wasn’t even taken on her ID, which she duly sent in to Facebook after being requested. Her account was never returned to her, despite following the rules.
- The “real name policy” is not evenly enforced. Activists–who often have easy enemies–and semi-famous people are the targets of the policy. Why? Facebook’s TOS are largely peer-enforced, which means that if I don’t like you, all I have to do is report you–or bully a bunch of other people into reporting you–as using a fake name. Your account is then sent into Facebook’s review; sometimes nothing happens, other times, your account is deactivated. The problem here is that your average Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse (see below) is a relative unknown, with no enemies to report him or her, which means that he/she is allowed to remain in the system while folks like Michael Anti–using his widely-known English pen name on the system instead of his lesser-known legal Chinese name–are kicked out.
So, is allowing anonymity the solution? Maybe, maybe not. I can honestly say I’d like to see points 1-4 taken care of more than I care about Facebook allowing pseudonyms.
That said, part of the reason I’ve advocated for allowing pseudonyms is that I think the benefit outweighs the harm. Others have argued that opening up Facebook to the anonymous masses makes it less safe; the truth is, the pseudonymous masses are already there. This doesn’t change reality, it only changes policy.
And as Facebook increasingly becomes a part of all of our daily lives, it becomes more and more difficult to tell activists to just “take their content elsewhere.” While it’s true that there are a number of other platforms on which activists can operate anonymously, Facebook is simply where the network is.