Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tangled Web

Would Anonymity Help Activists On Facebook? Maybe Not

There is an interesting debate about whether Facebook, which theoretically insists on a real-name policy, should allow activists to use pseudonyms on the site. In 2010, the Egyptian We Are All Khaled Said group was deactivated by Facebook because the administrators had registered it under pseudonymous accounts.

On February 10, Senator Dick Durbin wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging the company to do more to protect activists' rights. "The Egyptian and Tunisian governments have reportedly used Facebook to monitor activists, which is surely aided by Facebook's refusal to allow activists to use pseudonyms," he wrote. (Read the whole letter here.)

Facebook has long defined itself, unlike other social networks, by requiring people to use their real names. In practice, it doesn't quite work like that. There are probably millions of pseudonymous accounts, either spoof celebrities or just people not using their real names (I can think of plenty of examples in my own friend list.) In most cases, for an account to be disabled, someone must report the account, by clicking the "report/block this person" link. Facebook might then ask that person to prove they really are Mr. Mickey Mouse.

Except as Jillian York at the Berkman Center has pointed out in her work on this issue, Facebook doesn't seem too bothered about the Mr. Mickey Mouses of the world, but does seem more active in blocking the accounts of activists (presumably because Facebook gets a critical mass of "report abuse" notifications).

I'm all for corporate responsibility, and for companies joining organizations like the Global Network Initiativeto ensure they respect global rights norms, and certainly think Facebook should look into ways to better protect its activists, such as providing default HTTPS, but I'm not sure selective pseudonyms are the way forward. Couple of quick thoughts:

* 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? One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter and all that. Should Facebook, a private company with obligations primarily to its shareholders, give extra security to groups it might find noxious, for instance Holocaust deniers?

* 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. It would seem to be incredibly open for abuse. Surely "activist's status" could be abused by nonactivists -- hackers, spammers, etc -- who for whatever reason would want to be anonymous and gain the extra protection. And what would a special status mean? Perhaps it would mean that no one would be able to report them -- again an impunity that would be easy to abuse by the wrong person. A special pseudonym status seems like even more of a minefield, especially if Facebook struggles to maintain consistency with its current policy.

* Even if activists did have anonymity on Facebook, that could lull many into a false sense of security, encourage complacency, and actually put people at more risk. Even anonymous activists can be tracked by enterprising secret police. More important is that platforms like Facebook communicate clearly with activists and explain and educate them about the risks involved. Then the activists can choose what tools they want to use -- there are plenty of other platforms where activists can be anonymous, for example Twitter.

Regardless, Facebook isn't going to change its real-name policy: it is part of the company's culture and, along with all the talk of accountability, it's vital for advertisers. Facebook has also said it's talking to human rights organizations to find ways for activists to use the site without repercussions.

But while it looks like tidying up and putting more resources into its deactivation process is definitely needed, I'm not sure providing anonymity is necessarily the way forward. More broadly, this issue -- the power of Western corporations as intermediary censors and the responsibilities that come with providing a platform -- is becoming more and more acute. For example, a YouTube account, Freedom Messenger 20, which posted videos from the Iranian opposition, was taken down for supposed copyright violation -- in reality, it was probably taken down after a bunch of pro-regime types claimed copyright infringement.

I would be very interested in hearing other people's thoughts on this issue, in particular how Facebook could better protect activists using the site.

Tags: activism,Facebook

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: 3-D
February 22, 2011 17:46
Facebook will never be the correct forum for activists. It is a commercial company intended to make a profit, not some humanitarian organization intended to assist revolutionaries in destroying corrupt governments. Further, when the US is sponsoring these governments, it is in their interests to lean on Facebook to out dissidents while publicly claiming to advocate democracy and freedom. Ditto for Twitter.

At the very least, activists will need a decentralized social networking protocol not driven by profits, like OneSocialWeb or Diaspora. Ideally, they would have a social network built to run directly over Freenet.

The press needs to stop focusing on how Facebook and Twitter could do better at this or that and start giving more attention to alternatives that *truly* support the goals of activists.
In Response

by: Kitchenator from: California
February 22, 2011 18:24
Probably true that Facebook will never do much to support activists. In fact, most US corporations in the media space will just roll over to support whatever the party line is that week. Another tool that may be an option is Crabgrass, a social media tool which is purpose-built for activists (from

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
February 24, 2011 07:46
I heartily oppose this policy proposal from Jillian York at the Berkman Center to have anonymous accounts on Facebook. I've written at length here about it:

I think it merely creates more abusive stalking situations on Facebook for all of us, and it overlooks another vital form of organizing for NGOs and social movements on Facebook, and that is the association of accountable, identifiable accounts that people consciously link to as a means of deflecting anonymous harassment and spying by secret police and their supporters. I deal with a number of country situations where people consciously seek out the known, trusted faces of Facebook to make their groups and friendship lists precisely as a means of at least mitigating the awful factor of many open online forums of pro-government sock puppets and various aggressive and nihilist groups seeking to defeat human rights and democracy groups. No, we don't pretend this is perfect, but it's a question of *mitigation* that would be disrupted by the flooding in of anonymous and Anonymous accounts.

Moreover, I find it loathsome to the extreme that some people (identified by GNI? or how?!) would get special activist accounts and others (say a Second Life avatar name or a worthy but poor and disconnected activist somewhere) would be shafted because they weren't "socially important" enough. No one should decide who gets the title of "activist"; it must remain a self-designation with community affirmation that is not replaced with the exigencies and idiocies of code-as-law in the "social graph".

I don't want GNI to chose or Facebook executives to chose things like which activists are more important and how to adjudicate the inevitable challenges (and just as we get at OSCE meetings, yes, you will see religious zealots who believe their activism against LGBT should be treated as an NGO freedom of assembly issue). Oh, and interesting you should indicate "not advocating violence of hate speech". I've had this debate repeatedly with the Berkmanites and I can't get a clear statement from them that they will require that those they promote in programs such as Global Voices are those who do not use or advocate violence. This was an old Amnesty International mantra for 20 years that is no longer followed even by Amnesty itself anymore, sadly, in our time.

Only one thing should be asked of the directors of Facebook and Twitter: do not turn over any activist's real name (or any account information or user generated content) to authoritarian regimes, regardless of the type of account they have, real or pseudonymous (yes, we get it that there are such psedonyms already, but FB can and will remove them at any time under their TOS). But they can agree to maintain privacy and not turn account info over lightly except with lawful court orders with probable cause of a crime of the sort that doesn't involve endless debate about whether it's really a crime or not (Ultimately, this isn't even so much about Egyptians as it is about finding a larger anonymous platform for WikiLeaks and other "progressive" causes, of course, which is why it is being demanded so strenously now). The FB and Twitter global market expansion shouldn't be at the expense of basic human solidarity and respect for human rights. But people who don't want to become accountable should go organize on their opensource darknets and staff of mainstream servers. I don't believe the anonymous should demand visibility on commercial platforms without the accountability that goes along with it.

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
February 24, 2011 08:06
You mention being for corporate responsibility and having companies join GNI as the vehicle for achieving that. I very much disagree. I'm for corporate responsibility under the rule of law, not under the rule of elite panels -- I'd rather have Congress and the courts -- democratically elected institutions -- begin to assess the role of social media -- not only executive branch agencies in the Obama Administration, and not only NGOs and corporations with hook-ups to the White House. The unfounded fear of the right wing as threatening freedom of media and inducing things like the Communications Decency Act cause the left to shy away from the scrutiny of Congress, but frankly, we're getting the CDA all over again in different forms from the typical corporate TOS and PC NGO norms. These issues are too important, and too universal to become the possession of only one strand of political thinking in the U.S. or abroad.

I oppose browbeating companies like Facebook and Twitter (it won't work anyway) to join the GNI; the drive to get sign-ups to this exclusive club and devise inevitably watered-down policy distracts from the direct, focused struggles for Internet freedom that are needed around the world. Individually, many of the NGOs members of GNI do very good work; they are less than the sum of their parts, however in tandem with some of these corporations. That's going to seem terribly counterintuitive and I don't have the space to go into it here, but basically I have three main problems with GNI: a) the presence in the coalition of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a stalking horse for "copyleftism" in my view, which is a very different struggle than the one for Internet freedom and actually coupling them only undermine copyright and undermines human rights (and that's deliberate) b) the corporations like Google that are in this coalition have already had an apparently overly heavy impact, as the group has made more visible statements on issues such as the expression of concern about like the "chill on speech" represented by the Italian case involving the humiliation of a disabled boy on Youtube than they have on more classic free-speech cases; c) I'm not for badgering Facebook and Twitter to join this coalition because I think *their users* -- should lead a struggle against them for more democratic and fair rules and not let this policy be set by elites in collusion with the corporations. The issues with these giant social media platforms are not merely civil rights issues or human rights niceness. There are profound questions of power and property; of intellectual property and user-generated content rights as well as democratic governance not easily collapsed into the rights paradigm; these new city-states are in a war over their Magna Carta in some areas, and overriding that process with policies set outside of them not only won't work, it will make the standards lower.

I just don't think norms and rights and morals in the social media platforms where many of us increasingly spend our lives should be set up by elite committees run out of corporate headquarters, the Berkman Center and a few NGOs in meetings without public transcripts. I view it as a blatant exploitation of "administrative resources" to try to undemocratically set policy outside of Congress, the courts, and the public eye and ram it through non-state actors -- corporations -- that are also beyond scrutiny of the traditional institutions of the republic. It's taken for granted by the GNI operatives that you run politics out of your i-phone with an app now and a certain likeminded set of Twitter followers and FB friends, but I'd like all the American people, wired or not, in on the decision-making about these important issues.

by: Jillian C. York
February 24, 2011 14:53
To be clear, I would firmly oppose a special "activist status."

In fact, I think some of the larger concerns here aren't Facebook's "real name policy" but how it is enforced: It is skewed toward activists and famous people (e.g., Michael Anti), those who have enemies who would report them for using either a pseudonym or in the case of Anti, an Anglicized name. Those folks are taken down, while hundreds of Santa Clauses and Mickey Mouses remain.

One key element here would be to push Facebook toward a stronger appeals system that would allow folks like Anti to explain their situation and be granted approval. In Anti's case, he's not hiding anything, rather, he's using the name he's been known by for over 10 years. I've seen other cases where folks using their real names (the Najat Kessler case comes to mind) were unable to appeal an account deactivation, despite sending photo ID to Facebook.

I think we can all agree that Facebook could improve upon their processes.

In Response

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
February 25, 2011 05:37
Jillian York keeps *wilfully* distorting the problem here, and keeps invoking the Santa Clauses and the Mickey Mouses and keeps acting as if "Facebook" is "selective" -- we've heard this many times, it's been answered many times but she's still talking about the Santa Clauses. But the real problem, again, is the California Business Model -- these services all allow free registrations and free uploads *first* and only act *after an abuse report*. There were no abuse reports for those Mickey Mouses. That's why they're there, duh! But abusive governments learn quickly the game of playing abuse report on Facebook. Or they set up sock puppets or the 50 Cent Party types as in China who look to be real people but are merely secret police helpers or "persona management" types. So Facebook mods can't tell the difference and they remove people *because their TOS requires a real name*. Full stop.

*Because their TOS requires a real name*. It's not because they are being selective against Egyptian activists and favouring parents playing Santa Claus; it's because they act on their TOS when they are faced with a valid AR. No, Anti should not be given a free pass to override the TOS rules which are for everybody -- we are all equal under the law. I don't get to make a Second Life avatar account on Facebook; he doesn't get to use a pen name for his Egyptian activism. Harsh, but this is a commercial platform that has to serve a lot of people. If you invoke the devs' discretionary powers to give Anti a super-special hearing and free pass because he is "more socially worthy" than someone else, you're putting incredible amounts of discretionary power into the hands of mods that already have way too much of that power and are already entirely too casual and uneven in its use.

You undermine the rule of law when you cook up little notions of how to get your activists friends a pass with your Silicon Valley friends. It really rots. Facebook doesn't need to "improve their processes" -- that's simply too shallow -- and no, we don't "all agree" on that. Facebook should have due process period and operate with basic notions of justice like the right to face your accusers; it should have a public police blotter like real life where those who abuse-report you and in fact obtain action by the company must go on the record as doing so; that way the sock puppets and the state flunkeys would face some deterrence (as occurs in real life). That won't happen because people fear retribution and invoke that fear. Gaining due process in FB is a long struggle. So long that you should go to another platform and start over, like Diaspora. But imposing any elitist system on a platform already full of abuses is utterly the wrong way to go.

It's really deceptive of Jillian to claim that she is against special activist accounts on Facebook, and then double back and insist that activists who happened to have had pen names for years get to go back and get a special ruling on appeal.

Everybody has a story; I am not for increasingly the discretionary power of these platforms which already erode the rule of law in their TOS.

by: Jillian C. York
February 24, 2011 15:20
Hi again - was inspired to blog out some more thoughts on this:

About This Blog

Written by Luke Allnutt, Tangled Web focuses on the smart ways people in closed societies are using social media, mobile phones, and the Internet to circumvent their governments and the efforts of less-than-democratic governments to control the web. 
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