Two articles today focus on the promise and the troubles of Facebook for activists. I’ve written extensively on the subject, and though I recognize that Facebook is a private company with the right to make its own decisions, I continue to be troubled by what I view as negligence toward the international activist community.
First, the Washington Post reports on Facebook in Egypt, quoting my friend Alaa Abd El Fattah confirming the pro-democracy movement’s “dependence” on Facebook within Egypt, and noting how anger on the site progressed into a legitimate uprising. For its part, Facebook notes that it’s discussing internally the use of its tool in situations like this, but “casts its moves [such as offering HTTPS to Tunisians amidst government phishing attempts] as mere technical solutions.”
The article also notes how certain experts (myself included, though I didn’t speak to WaPo for the piece) have recognized the trouble of Facebook’s “real name” policy, and offers up the following quote from Facebook expert and biographer David Kirkpatrick:
“People at Facebook have been asking themselves in the wake of Egypt or Tunisia whether there might be a way they can allow political activities in these spontaneous revolts to acquire a little bit of anonymity. The problem is, if they start making it easier for political activists to use Facebook in places like Egypt or Tunisia, those same capabilities are likely to be used by people we don’t admire or pro-government thugs.”
As I’ve noted before, activists who use pseudonyms often find their accounts deleted. Even folks with well-known and established pen names have been told by Facebook that they must revert to the name on their government-issued identification.
In another piece, this one for Bloomberg’s Businessweek, Brendan Greeley, writing more broadly on the problem with 21st century statecraft (which I’ll have to address in a separate post at some point, though Evgeny Morozov’s pretty much got that area covered), covers how Facebook’s real name policy impacts activists in countries like Egypt:
Facebook hasn’t completely adhered to the Secretary’s national branding guidelines, either. Jillian York, an Internet freedom researcher at Berkman, tells the story of one of Egypt’s more popular Facebook protest groups, We Are All Khaled Said, named for a young Egyptian allegedly killed by police in Alexandria last year. Before parliamentary elections in December, Facebook disabled the group. When asked to explain its decision, the company pointed out that the group’s administrators were using pseudonyms, which can keep an activist safe but violates Facebook’s terms of service. Facebook restored the group when a new administrator volunteered a real name. The same thing happened to a group that supported Mohamed ElBaradei, the opposition leader. York has similar stories from Hong Kong, Tunisia, Syria, and Morocco.
Perfectly accurate quote (great journalists like Greeley call their subjects and check before publishing) — I am infinitely frustrated by the inanity of the real name policy in situations like this. I get where Facebook’s coming from: They’ve long branded themselves as a “real network for real people.” But they’re out of touch with reality: That’s simply not how most people–in particular, activists–use Facebook. Using one’s real name is good, and I would encourage it whenever possible, but the truth remains that it’s not always a feasible choice. As Morozov has noted before, these tools can be great for activism, but they can also be used by governments to track down “troublemakers.” Facebook has before (Fouad Mourtada comes to mind) and will again been used in this manner.
I, for one, would like to see Facebook abandon this policy. It is, for lack of a better word, inane in light of how the platform is used globally. Facebook should listen to their users and accommodate their needs. To me, abandonment of the policy isn’t even that necessary; I just want to see a stop to crackdowns on vulnerable activists.