One of the reasons for the explosive growth of social media in the last few years is that it provided the opportunity to share, to network, to converse with real people using their real picture and real name. If you think of the predecessors of social media like Yahoo message boards, news commenting sections and before that USENET newsgroups, they often devolved into a hodge podge of spam, racist and sexist vitriol and various other forms of stupidity and unpleasantness. No one was accountable for what they said because they hid behind a generally unidentifiable user name.
Social media changed all that. You could see and identify your friends, your family, your business associates. But as the social networks user base stretched into the millions we started to see profiles like these “zombie blondes.” These “girls” all had the same interests, the same favorite sport, they each put up three photos and “friended” each other. No one knows who was behind the zombie blondes but it is suspected that if you accepted their friend request they would consummate that friendship by dropping by (virtually of course) with a little malware.
There are a lot of reasons why the social networks want you to use your real identity. And the integrity of their services requires a level of trust that is undermined by fake profiles. If you’ve read my earlier Digital Deception posts, you know about some of things fake profiles have been used for:
- To defraud and defame
- To bully or stalk classmates, old flames or workplace rivals
- To misrepresent someone’s influence, a Web site’s reach or user reviews of books, movies or businesses.
- To send spam
But there are also some pretty compelling reasons to use hidden identities. This story, She Tweeted Against the Mexican Cartels. They Tweeted Her Murder , appeared in the Daily Beast recently. It is about a woman in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas who adopted the name Feline and used cat woman as an avatar and who used social media to expose information about the drug cartels that no journalist would print. She sent alerts warning people of locations of violent incidents. She had half a million followers on Facebook and more than 100,000 on Twitter. Eventually her identity was discovered and she was murdered.
- Political dissidents who live in repressive societies
- Victims of abuse
- Members of the LGBT community
- Members of religious groups who have suffered discrimination
Or it might be something as simple as a person who uses a slightly changed named in order throw off a prying employer or relative. Or suppose you happen to be known as Jay-Z or Lady Gaga.
The major social media networks are in something of a quandary about how to deal with this. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ have all taken different approaches. I don’t think any of them have found the solution.
No one has gotten pulled into the muck on this issue more than Facebook. According to the rules in Facebook’s account settings, “Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.”
Earlier this month Chief Product Officer Chris Cox elaborated: “Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone uses the authentic name they use in real life.” Does that clarify things?
Cox’s comments were in response to a furor that Facebook created, mostly in San Francisco, when they deleted the accounts of drag queens because they weren’t using their real names. That is only one of a series of gaffes Facebook has been drawn into as it has attempted to crack down on fake profiles.
In an SEC filing in 2012 Facebook estimated that 8.7% of its accounts were duplicates or false accounts. At the time that amounted to 83 million Facebook members. That was a problem for Wall Street. If Facebook doesn’t have real information about real people what does that do to its ability to target ads? What does that do to its ability to expand its business based on its database of users?
So as a public company Facebook has stepped up its efforts to clean up its user database. They claim to investigate any user reported irregularities. But really, Facebook has one employee for every 239,000 members.
One victim of Facebook’s campaign for authenticity was Salomon Rushdie. Apparently the first name on Rushdie’s passport is Ahmed, a name he never uses. Facebook deleted his account. That is until Rushdie let everyone know about it on Twitter.
More recently Facebook has gone after the DEA (Facebook Demands DEA Stop Using Fake Profile Pages in Investigations). This came about after a New York woman who had a cocaine conviction sued the DEA because they used her photo and personal data from her phone to create a Facebook account that they used to get her associates to disclose information.
I don’t really think Facebook knows what direction to turn. Just recently they launched an app called Rooms that accommodates anonymous users. So while Facebook is trying to enforce its real identity policy, it doesn’t want to lose touch with those who want to hide behind a pseudonym.
In my next post I’ll look at how Google, Twitter and Linked In are dealing with their identity conundrum.