Digital Deception: Social Media’s Identity Conundrum Pt. 2

While Facebook has stepped up its efforts to purge profiles without real names, Google+ has been moving in the opposite direction. Google+ was established with a policy of real names only. Like Facebook, they were embarrassed by their efforts to enforce that policy. One of Google+’s users was Vahid Online. Vahid Online is an Iranian activist, a man who lives in a country where you get arrested if you say the wrong thing online. Google deactivated his account because he was using a pseudonym.

This incident led to a change in policy in 2012 in which Google said it would allow “established” psuedonyms, but still required the user to provide his or her real identity. Vahid ended up back on line. Two years later, in July of this year, Google dropped the real name policy altogether, stating that it had led to “unnecessary difficult experiences for some of our users.”

Twitter and LinkedIn are at opposite ends of the real identity issue. That is clearly a result of the way these services are used. Twitter is probably the most widely followed social network when it comes to real-time on-the-ground news. Arab Spring was one example of that. News of the uprising against the Mubarak regime in Egypt was tweeted by citizens on the streets of Cairo. How much of that information would have been made public if everyone was required to use their real name and real identity?

LinkedIn on the other hand is above all else a professional database for job seekers and recruiters. There is obviously no advantage to changing your identity in that environment and the very efficacy of the service demands real people and real profiles.

HashtagLike Facebook, Twitter is a public company with financial reporting and disclosure requirements. In its SEC filing, it estimated that 5% of the profiles on Twitter are fake. Some other researchers have suggested that the real number may be double that. Twitter accepts pseudonyms and also allows users to have more than one account.

There are some safeguards in place to deter fraudsters. The service rules state “you may not create multiple accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes, or with overlapping use cases. Mass account creation may result in suspension of all related accounts.” They claim to have controls in place to identify spam accounts. They also enforce a follower to following ratio and prohibit following more than 1,000 accounts in a day. This is intended to stop the automated services that follow thousands of accounts and when a certain percentage follow back it builds an audience.

The rules also cover impersonation. “You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.” There is a form on the service to report impersonation.

You wouldn’t expect there to be many fake accounts on LinkedIn. You’re not going to find catfish there, kids aren’t bullying their classmates on LinkedIn and it’s not the service you would use to take revenge on a former significant other. But there are fake accounts and they are in place for the purpose of scraping data, a pirating activity made attractive by the detailed profiles on this service. LinkedIn itself has been accused of creating fake accounts for the “people you may know” section in order to get users to prompt their friends and associates to join.  (How LinkedIn creates fake accounts for your contacts, and uses you to solicit them into joining.)

Earlier this year LinkedIn filed suit in San Francisco against hackers who they claimed were using software to create thousands of fake accounts and capturing data from other LinkedIn user accounts. One issue that was a little foggy in that legal action is that they don’t actually know who these hackers are.

LinkedIn’s rules are simply that you use your real name and provide accurate information. Like the others they have functionality for users to report “inappropriate” profiles. They have a reputation for being the most responsive of the social media networks in dealing with reports of fake accounts.

Both LinkedIn and Twitter have policies that reflect the way their services are being used. If, however,  you want to be everything to everybody (Facebook) or if you are running from behind (Google+) the way forward is not so clear.

For details on how Facebook has dealt with this issue see Part 1.

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3 Responses to Digital Deception: Social Media’s Identity Conundrum Pt. 2

  1. Complex subject an lots of food for thought. I’ve never had a reason to hide behind another name but I do know people who are far more concerned with privacy issues. Thanks for such a through review of the social media identity situation.


  2. I’ve always been one to use my real name in dealings on social media, but I seem to pick up a lot of suspicious looking followers especially on Twitter, probably just bot accounts, but as you rightly mentioned sometime anonymity on social media is necessary to protect people’s lives and free speech. It’s a double-edged sword for both the media companies and their users.



  3. Tatia says:

    Hi Ken. I’ve never had a problem using my real name in social media accounts, as long as I use them with caution. I think it’s nearly impossible to achieve anonymity in social media because content on the internet is traceable. If people are concerned with their privacy, perhaps they should consider another outlet of expression or at least be realistic about the potential outcomes of their actions.


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