Who’s really who on Facebook?

 
Using Facebook on a smartphone

We all know what a wonderful aid the internet can be to communication and debate. Sadly, we are becoming aware of how often spiteful anonymous comments can poison the well of web conversations. But now there's something of a fightback - and the social networks where many of these conversations happen will be under growing pressure to do more to protect vulnerable users.

On Monday's Today programme, Nicola Brooke described in moving detail how she had been bullied on Facebook - and had fought back by getting a court order forcing the social network to identify the anonymous people who had mounted a vicious campaign of abuse.

What struck me was that Facebook and other social networks had once appeared to offer the promise of a more civilised online communication precisely because they were places where people were who they said they were.

Unlike web forums where bilious commenters express themselves in ways they would never dream of doing without the shield of anonymity, social networks like Facebook and Twitter should be more polite because you have to be who you say you are.

But that no longer appears to be the case. Facebook now has 900 million active users but it seems quite a large proportion of them are not "real" people. (In its IPO document, the company says false or duplicate accounts probably make up 5-6% of its users, although it admits that this is a very rough estimate and may not be accurate.)

When you sign up to join the social network, you are taken to a "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities" which includes this: "Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way."

It goes on to say that you must:

  • be over 13
  • not create more than one personal account
  • and not be a convicted sex offender.

But what is clear is that all of these rules - which appear essential to maintaining the network's reputation as a safe and civilised place - are being flouted with regularity. Anyone who has children will know the pressure to allow them to join Facebook before they are 13 - "everybody on school is on it already!"

And a good number of adults are setting up accounts for newborn babies - and are inevitably being less than frank about their own dates of birth.

So what is Facebook doing about this? The company says it does not actively police its users to make sure they are not breaking the rules - that would be impossible given the scale of the network - but relies on others reporting abuse. On each user's timeline you are able to go to a reporting screen where you can either block them or report that "This timeline is pretending to be someone or is fake."

When the network receives complaints, it says it is reasonably evident when an account is breaking the rules on anonymity. Obvious clues include a user who has started several accounts using the same email address, or who has had lots of friend requests rejected.

Person using laptop Would you say aloud what you just typed?

But Facebook won't reveal how many accounts it has suspended over the past year, so it is difficult to know exactly how well the system is working. Perhaps we all need to be more active in reporting abuse on networks like this. And maybe networks like Facebook need to be more active in policing their own rules.

But here's another thought.

Unless you're living in an oppressive state, or have reason to fear for your own safety if your identity is revealed, is there any real justification in hiding behind a false name online?

In all sorts of online communities - from YouTube to political blogs to technology forums - you can find angry people saying outrageous things. Wouldn't it be healthier if we all started ignoring those who aren't prepared to say what they think in their own names?

 
Rory Cellan-Jones, Technology correspondent Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

More on This Story

More from Rory

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 80.

    "So what is Facebook doing about this" Facebook should assiduously "police" 800 million users because the BBC is worried that some parents can't behave responsibly? Why doesn't the BBC start the ball rolling and set up a unit to report ALL underage and baby pages. There'd be an outcry, FB being unreasonable, and then a relaxation of the rules. It's bizarre how these things operate.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 79.

    73MK_Hatter

    I have never used Social Networking sites as they are mostly for weak and vulnerable people who cannot socialise in a normal way and have problems forming relationships.
    =
    This first, unreasoned and derogatory, sentence turns me off reading the rest of your post. Personally, I would feel ashamed if I posted what you just have.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 78.

    My brother went by the name of 'Luther Blissett' on Facebook for a while. There was a craze to change your name to this and add people to your friends list who had done likewise. Not in homage to the footballer but to the anarcho-syndicalist movement of the same name.

    He stopped though, because he had several hundred friends with the same name, and Facebook became completely confusing as a result

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 77.

    There are reasons to need anonymity such as mine. I am a recognised helper on certain forums and attract the attention of trolls. The Social sites have my real identity and can trace me easily should they need to but why should any others have that right. My friends know who I am but I don't think those who have no idea of who I am should be allowed to post comments about me.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 76.

    "Yes, we should use real names in ANY Internet activity." ... or, at least, so says "Tim091".

    Can we say "hypocrite", children?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 75.

    I have an unfortunate name, Wayne is the first one which is not too bad, but my surname is Kerr, even the beeb wouldn't let me post it when i tried to put them together. It said i was using a profanity.. What chance would I stand on social commentary sites?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 74.

    Maybe we can appeal to market forces? At some point Facebook's customers - the advertisers - will balk at paying those rates for showing adverts to people who don't exist, and will start insisting that Facebook conduct a proper census of its user base.

  • rate this
    -11

    Comment number 73.

    I have never used Social Networking sites as they are mostly for weak and vulnerable people who cannot socialise in a normal way and have problems forming relationships. If you don’t want to expose yourself in this way then don't use them - you might have a more fulfilling life as a result, otherwise stop complaining.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 72.

    I agree in principle, but Simon bradley isn't, apparently, a unique (or even that uncommon) name. So what happens when someone gets to a social network before me? Do I use a number afterwards? A location? The trouble with either of those is that for either to be memorable it'll have to be meaningful. And that's potentially asking for trouble...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 71.

    I found You Tube to be one of the most abusive Forums in their comments section.
    If people use the Security Settings correctly on FaceBook they will screen out would be "friends" who are anything but!
    I confess! on HERE I was.."Edgar99" now I've been asked for my name..and gave it....exposed!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 70.

    66Alan Robinson-Orr

    61.fuzzy
    Why? I mean, would it really make any difference if you knew my real name, regards asking this question?
    ==
    I think it would make your contributions more credible as far as I'm concerned if I knew your real name.
    ==
    I find so long as the other guy's point is well argued the name is irrelevant.

    "Oh my name it ain't nothin', my age it means less" Bob Dylan

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 69.

    Both me and my dog Yogi use our real names and profile pictures on FaceBook!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 68.

    I don't necessarily use my real name, but the names I use on-line are well established and are definitely me.

    As for letting something as trivial as Facebook know my real birthday, no way. My internet birthday is consistent but bears no resemblance to my real one. ID theft due to hacking is a risk, but they can't steal what isn't there.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 67.

    Some what paradoxically, aren't people more honest when using a pseudonym? That's not a bad thing, as you can ignore those you throw insults etc, and only talk to those who use reason - just like real life.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 66.

    61.fuzzy

    Why? I mean, would it really make any difference if you knew my real name, regards asking this question?

    PS. Are you really the real Alan Robinson-Orr?

    ==

    I think it would make your contributions more credible as far as I'm concerned if I knew your real name.

    Yes I am the real Alan Robinson-Orr - there are not many Robinson-Orrs about.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 65.

    No!

    I'm Pete...........................

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 64.

    Slight logistics problem with this, there are hundreds of Pete Jackson's living in Lancashire, let alone England.
    "who is Pete?" "I'm Pete... no, I'm Pete.. no, I'm the real Pete!"

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 63.

    #43 Jeremy Ross. False. It is perfectly legitimate to use whatever name one desires in any circumstances, as long as you are not trying to appear to be an entirely different individual, even on legal or financial documents.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 62.

    Is this really a serious article? Often using your own name is not possible as someone also has the same name unless you have a daft name, using your own name makes it easier for further personal info to be found this in turn allows the "bad people" to hack your accounts, use your credit cards , stalk & harrass you, impersonate you and so on the list is endless.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 61.

    58Alan Robinson-Orr

    As you will see, I use my real name on the BBC News website.

    If you're going to comment on what journalists or what other people say you should be adult enough to put your name to it.
    =
    Why? I mean, would it really make any difference if you knew my real name, regards asking this question?

    PS. Are you really the real Alan Robinson-Orr?

 

Page 5 of 8

 

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.