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

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 160.

    Amit, you'd have to be a bit stupid to do that though - you enter an email address for someone. No result. You then enter their name and immediately you've given their name AND email address to that website. Duh!

    And another point - Google ex-CEO Eric Schmidt reckons most people online will need a new identity as they're putting way too much personal info on Facebook. I'd pay attention!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 159.

    You should all be aware that who you are is known, where you are is know, what computer you are using is known, even in an internet cafe we can watch you with their CCTV, If you have a webcam we can activate it, dont be fooled by think that using a false name on the internet will protect you. Who are, we, the people "who work for you" of course.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 158.

    You can check your personal online rank at each region at: topwebperson.com

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 157.

    So the self-appointed net overseers wish to engage in bullying to prevent bullying? Force everyone to use their real names so that anything that they say can and will be traced back to them -- whether that be by an employer or a net avenger hell bent on undermining an individual. In other words they wish to silence people: and this is good how?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 156.

    "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?"

    David Birch wouldn't agree: http://www.ted.com/talks/david_birch_identity_without_a_name.html

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 155.

    "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?"-oppressive states arent made overnight, they creep in with things like this trying to force censorship, you can't give internet nazis an inch or theyll take the whole thing

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 154.

    I take the view that this attack on internet anonymity is itself an attack on the truth. In what way is a statement falsified when it is made by an anonymous person? It seems to me that demanding real-names on the net is just as likely to increase belief based on popularity, or drown valid, yet un-popular, comments out.

    This proposal will turn the net into a sterile amorphous yes machine.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 153.

    152 Les-M

    It's yet another example of definition creep. What was once almost a technical term for a specific type of behaviour has become a more general term for any kind of unwanted posting. (Particularly since mainstream journalists started writing about the issue and needed an appropriate "journalese" single-word label.)

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 152.

    On all internet forums that I have used, "trolling" is nothing to do with bullying, stalking etc. "Trolling" is posting an argument or comment for the sake of it, with the intent of annoying other users, or for the poster to boost their ego. Why has the term "trolling" now been applied to the much more sinister act of what is also called cyber-bullying, stalking, etc.? A very different problem.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 151.

    Anonymity seems to give people the equivalent of an invisibility cloak. These trolls use this invisibility cloak to reveal their true selves and their true personality. I really can’t fathom that there are people who exist amonst us who would insult, bully and harass the bereaved, the less intelligent or just those with an opinion.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 150.

    I have a rare surname. In the past I was a public spokesperson for a company, hence I can be found via Google, etc. Since I left that role some years ago I need to ensure that any comments that I make (especially related to electronics, computers, etc) do not adversely affect me or that company. Therefore on discussion forums for electronics and other topics I use pseudonyms,

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 149.

    I largely agree with the article, anonymity seems to give people the equivalent of an invisibility cloak under which they can spout abuse and threaten without fear of sanction.
    And this is my real name and initial!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 148.

    I must be weird because the only interest I have in Facebook is keeping contact with real people I know face to face - some relatives I have not seen for many years and did not know I had moved so it has been very useful.

    from time to time I do get a request from a complete stranger - I have no clue why they contacted me all I know is their request is turned down.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 147.

    "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?"

    The answer is partly already in the question: if you've been bullied, abused or stalked, you have every reason not to put your real name, photo and contact details online for everyone to see and find.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 146.

    On the subject of usernames and trolls, I hope im not the only one a bit concerned about websites being forced to give private details out about trolls. why? no im not one, but i can think of over a dozen cases of people being accused of being a troll, when they are making legitimate arguments, and the other party is being a 'lol-cow' and trolling by calling people trolls when they arent...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 145.

    102. well theres a new business idea - Shrinks OnLine - you can be abused by some jerk online and then jump to a facebook page and be fleeced by another.

    I'd rather fire up the Xbox and shoot something. great stress release.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 144.

    "Unless you're living in an oppressive state"....Perhaps an oppressive state where government monitor social networks, emails, texts and phone calls and everything else you do with millions of cctv cameras? An oppressive state when government impose whatever laws they want whenever they want without consulting anybody? So.. "is there any real justification in hiding behind a false name online?"

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 143.

    YES

  • rate this
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    Comment number 142.

    Dreadful idea. What you want is accountability for people's actions. Using "real names" might help achieve that but at the cost of making identity theft easier and making children more vulnerable.

    All of my accounts are in a false name because, I teach, and I like to have a life outside teaching that is not easily located by the people I'm teaching.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 141.

    There is also a big disconnect between the journalist, celebrity and Political class who pontificate on this sort of thing. They all Want to be recognised with their byline etc. on what they write. That is how they make money. They are hiding their real views, tip toeing so as not to upset potential customers/supporters. Like Gorgon's "bigoted woman" private comment, that got recorded.

 

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