Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Facebook for Activists

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.

14 Comments

  1. You make some good points but overall I completely disagree. Facebook is a social network – a network with huge saturation that is used beyond the basic premise of connecting and interacting with your friends.

    The problem is that there is no way to skip the real-name policy without opening the door to all the negative aspects that come with it. You bring this up yourself when you quote David Kirkpatrick.

    Facebook’s success is also because for the first time people cannot hide behind anonymous comments and therefore are more inclined to provide honest and constructive dialogue instead of the snarky biting comments you see at the end of blog posts.

    So this policy is not ” inane in light of how the platform is used globally”. It is “inane” in the case of global activism under certain repressive regime. However, Facebook was not built to solve that problem or to be an activist platform. That niche accounts for a tiny tiny percentage of of Facebook usage. It would be crazy of FB to compromise for what is an edge case.

    I wish there was some way to have the best of both worlds. However in this case there isn’t but it troubles me that people like yourself make it sound like Facebook is insensitive or malevolent to things like this – or make it sounds like they must be crazy not to but in the one feature that you happen to want.

    My 2 cents.

    • Hi Michael,

      Your points are certainly valid. That said, this policy affects more than activists–it affects anyone living under a repressive regime. It also theoretically affects anyone who uses a pen or stage name (e.g., Natalie Portman).

      There are other issues with Facebook that I do find to be negligent – they have over a million Arabic-speaking users but their terms of service aren’t available in that language (though the rest of the site is). They have few staff members who speak the languages of their members (also a problem in policing content). I’m not suggesting they’re malevolent, I’m suggesting they lack global sensibilities.

      -Jillian

  2. Michael, your comment makes absolute sense in North America. There are plenty of places where this is not the case.

  3. Jillian,

    Thanks for the post.

    Commonly, the problem with pseudonymity is the loss of accountability. One fix for this problem could be to allow anonymous accounts if there is a named representative who can represent the speaker (in the print era, an attorney usually fills this role; perhaps a group like Global Voices could provide some representation of this sort).

    Now how to press the matter…?

    Google takes public policy matters semi-seriously– they have a blog, though that is still one-way, and they don’t answer questions enough there. Ten days ago I posed a question for Facebook to at least try to make a similar effort. Unfortunately, there’s been no traction. :-/

    http://www.facebook.com/q/Any-plans-for-a-blogpage-on-Facebook-corporate-public-policy/10150165179399951

  4. I’ve never used Facebook, so without that context I would have to agree with Michael. While Facebook may currently be the more predominate outlet, people certainly have many options available to effectively broadcast their messages.

  5. “Facebook’s success is also because for the first time people cannot hide behind anonymous comments and therefore are more inclined to provide honest and constructive dialogue instead of the snarky biting comments you see at the end of blog post”

    This is untrue, using one’s real name is not a guarantee that bigotry ends. The Raoul Moat groups on Facebook are clear examples of how people can make the most ridculous claims ever. Have you ever read through some of the comments on an Obama post or Kanye West? Try it sometime. Hate Groups abound on Facebook and people use their real names and talk crap so the ‘honest and constructive dialogue’ is only in your world Michael. There are enough nutcases on Facebook who don’t hide behind pseudonyms, but keyboards and screens.

    What worries me the most in addition to the inability of Facebook to guarantee anonymity is that your IP address is also encrypted in every message you send so if an activist wanted to use Facebook under an assumed name, their location could still be found out. IMO its mainly the tech savy activists who know how to hide identity online can use Facebook without any fear of being found out.

  6. Have to agree with@Jillian and @KonWomyn here!
    It’s really an insane, irritating and frustrating policy especially when they get too strict to applying it to certain venrable users and banning a number of pages/groups!

    I have many friends on FB that had changed their real names for some reasons (not activism) and I still get their daily feeds! Why this policy isn’t applied in such a case??

    I really wonder now if facebook is more than just a private company but is involved somehow in some govermental deals violating by that the safety of some users!!

  7. Facebook is a private company, offering a ‘social’ space for communication. The space is still governed by commercial interests of the company. It so happened that the specifications of the platform made it conducive for people across the world, to share stories, ideas, photos, events, links and videos – and what not.

    If a bunch of social and digital activists decided to convert their casual Facebook conversations and stories into something political and socially relevant, then they need to find a more public and at the same time, secure, platform.

    Expecting Facebook to take up social service, literally, is not justified. Imagine, if we ask MSN, Yahoo!, Google and other communication technology platforms to go ‘public’ in the name of democracy? It’s business for them – wake up!

    • It’s certainly a private company, and as I mentioned in the first paragraph, they’re well within their rights to do…well, whatever they want.

      I’m suggesting that they would better serve their users by becoming attuned to their needs.

  8. Anything that eats away at Facebook’s monopoly is OK in my book!

    • You talk of Facebook and monopoly as if all of its users were coerced into joining the social networking site and are now pawns in the company’s hands? :-) Are we? Can’t we just plug out of their system?

    • Nilofar,

      Now that’s the question. Sure, we can quit any day — but it’s unlikely your network will follow you. As Facebook becomes more and more widespread, it becomes a stand-in for the public sphere, except now it’s a public space owned by a private company. I find that alarming.

      So, I quit and life goes on. An activist quits and he no longer has the same network to reach out to.

  9. Seems like you’ve got friends in high places!
    The movement has picked up a bit, Senator Durbin is now pushing for this:
    http://www.allfacebook.com/u-s-senator-asks-facebook-for-anonymity-option-2011-02

  10. Facebook can be over rated at times but very useful when u are keeping up friends.

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