Facebook stops asking users to rat out friends using fake names online

Filed Under: Facebook, Google, Privacy, Social networks

Facebook has wrapped up an experiment to get people to rat out friends who are using aliases on the site.

Is this Facebook snitching?

A real-names privacy brouhaha started last Wednesday when a user tweeted a photo of a Facebook survey that asked whether a given Friend's name was real, presenting a user's account name, profile photo and location and asking the survey recipient whether the Friend's account user name is their real name.

Activist/writer/artist/photojournalist @chapeaudefee, who tweeted the survey snapshot, asked who'll be participating in what one privacy advocate is calling "Snitchgate":

Facebook wants to know if your friends' names are real. Are you going to be the snitch?

Facebook confirmed to TPM that it has been experimenting with surveying users about their Friends' usernames for a few months now.

From Facebook's statement:

This system has been in a few different incarnations over the past couple months. … It changes depending on what’s being asked.

Facebook wouldn't tell TPM the new survey's size, its duration, or countries in which it had been rolled out.

A Facebook spokesman on Tuesday told me that the survey was a limited one, and that it has already been concluded.

The spokesman said that survey data was anonymized and that it won't use the survey data to take specific action, such as yanking a user's pseudonymous account:

This was a limited survey we have already concluded. We are always looking to gauge how people use Facebook and represent themselves to better design our product and systems. We analysed these surveys only using aggregate data and responses had zero impact on any user's account.

Here's what the Facebook spokesperson told TPM about wanting to improve its understanding of users:

This isn’t so we can go and get that person in trouble. None of our surveys are used for any enforcement action. Basically, what this model does is help better inform us in how to classify different types of accounts. Just because we're showing a question about a particular user doesn't mean we suspect them of anything. The user is chosen by a system.

The answers that users provide help Facebook achieve a "better understanding of our ecosystem," the spokesperson said.

Real-name policies are all the rage with companies building online communities. Google+ has one (unless you're a celebrity, that is), and Google also rolled one out on YouTube in June.

The rationale relies on the assumption that people will behave in a more civilized fashion if they aren't hiding behind an alias, and/or that a given community will be cozier and, somehow, safer. (Of course, they're not so good if you have a legitimate reason for wishing to remain anonymous)

As Facebook states in its own real-name policy, it sees itself as "a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you're connecting with."

Beyond that, Facebook's Terms of Service state that:

"Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. … You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission."

"If you select a username or similar identifier for your account or Page, we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe it is appropriate (such as when a trademark owner complains about a username that does not closely relate to a user's actual name)."

Infographic on fake accounts on FacebookDoes a real-name policy actually work?

Nope. Facebook has admitted that regardless of what it does to enforce the real-name policy, 8.7 percent of its accounts are using fake names, or about 83.1 million out of 955 million users worldwide.

And as TechCrunch reported in July, South Korea is a case study in how real-name policies fail to sanitize the muck of vile comments.

In 2007, the country temporarily mandated that all websites with over 100,000 viewers require real names.

It struck down the policy in July on the grounds that it undermined free speech, but also because it simply failed to clean up nastiness.

That was the conclusion of a Korean Communications Commission study that found the policy only decreased malicious comments by 0.9%.

Meanwhile, hackers flooded Korean sites, managing to steal an astonishing 35 million users' real-name personal data from the social sites Nate and its subsidiary Cyworld.

Analysis by Carnegie Mellon’s Daegon Cho and Alessandro Acquisti further found that Korea's real-name policy actually wound up increasing the frequency of expletives in comments posted by heavy users.

Of course, real-name policies also have the potential to hurt a vast number of people, as was repeatedly emphasized in the pseudonym battle waged over Google+, which came to be known as the Nym Wars.

The Geek Feminism Wiki keeps a running tab of the groups of people who are hurt by these policies.

This is just a very small sample of such groups:

  • Women, who experience up to 25 times as much online harassment as men, if they use feminine-sounding usernames.
  • LGBT people, especially teens, 50% of whom experience bullying online, and those living in regions that do not have anti-discrimination policies or where homosexuality or transgender behaviour is outlawed.
  • Children, who are often advised to use pseudonyms online for their own safety.
  • Survivors of domestic abuse (most often women and children) who need to avoid being found by their abusers.
  • People whose religious beliefs, lack thereof, or experiences place them at risk.
  • Activists, whistleblowers, people who use professional pseudonyms.

Those are a lot of potential victims.

Here's hoping that their Friends act like friends and respect their right to express themselves without fear of dangerous repercussions.

I hope we can trust Facebook to do the right thing with the survey results.

But if you're like me, you'd have hit the survey's fourth radio button: the one that said "I don't want to answer."

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15 Responses to Facebook stops asking users to rat out friends using fake names online

  1. Marc · 1065 days ago

    "Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. … You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission."

    Yeah right, do they actually think anyone ever reads this stuff. Every website we join, every bit of software has an 'I accept all this guff ' clause and a button to click. It is all nonsense designed to let them out of any legal hassles. Here's the real news, almost everyone who uses the websites and software NEVER reads the license details. It is a waste of time. We use what we want and like the companies who are trying to make money out of it, we make whatever use of it we wish until they do something to stop us.

    The real world is just like that.

  2. Freegan · 1065 days ago

    Online privacy is an ongoing hot topic.

    Facebook's insistence of not using online pseudonyms raises the threat of destroying that privacy.

    No website is immune to the exploits of hackers, especially those seeking to steal identities.

    Facebook should permit the use of pseudonyms to safeguard against identity thieves and reassure those who use them that their data cannot be mined for impersonation in the real world.

    • andrew · 1065 days ago

      this is only a good idea if your ID has been stolen previously. and proof should be shown. however I am in agreement that security is an issue. so Facebook should make all the necessary arrangements, that no one individuals account can hacked even if they are friends.

  3. Phil · 1065 days ago

    I recently started to log in to facebook and got a popup that stated facebook had determined that I had more than one user id and wanted to know if this is my main identity. When I answered 'no' they yanked that account. This happened with two of the eight identities I was using for gaming purposes. I don't know if it had anything to do with the "survey".

  4. Fred Dorfman · 1065 days ago

    I had resisted doing anything on Facebook as I have zero interest in having my personal life spread far and wide. With the sheer number of sites that tie directly into Facebook for authentication, comments, etc. (just like here as one option), I decided to create a specific FB account with a complete fake name, no personal information, etc. Fortunately, there are lots of sites that let you create email addresses that you can use to tie into others that do require outside emails. If FB decides to kill that off, I'll just create something else.

  5. Sue Dernim · 1064 days ago

    I can legally decide that I am called anything that I like as long as I am not doing it for fraudulent purposes. My bank accounts, driving licence and passport have different names and they are all me. Facebook have no rights to say that my name isn't what I say it is. If any one want to be known as some alternative moniker then that is up to them.

    Having multiple Facebook accounts is another matter. That might be considered fraudulent in some ways. Personally I think there is too much crap with one account, let alone having multiple ones.

  6. Edmund · 1064 days ago

    Private life business of that person concerned, it is their ownership; its borders are not to intrude into rights of others to enjoy their private life. If put out a false name, correct attitude is caution; same as in everyday life should be, carefulness.

  7. Joe · 1064 days ago

    Another category of people for whom it could be dangerous to use their real names is people in professions such as working in a gaol. I met a woman who never used her real name or photo on dating sites because she worked in a prison and didn't want former inmates tracking her down.

  8. Joe · 1064 days ago

    The other question about a survey like that is if there's any provision for false positives. I've heard if your facebook account gets reported for nudity they don't actually check to see if there is any, they just close it down (or at least I've heard of one person who claimed that's what happened to them).

  9. Little miss · 1064 days ago

    I hated that google wanted my real name, I blog anonymously but wanted to promote my writing on there and there was no way around the real name section!
    I hope Facebook does not follow in their footsteps.
    Imagine if twitter suddenly decided we all had to be real!

  10. Liz · 1062 days ago

    Almost totally agree with comment above from Sue D https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2012/09/26/facebo... It is perfectly legal, in the UK at least, to have more than one "real name". It is also unlikely that all one's real names would be known to all one's FaceBook friends. Therefore any survey by FB of the type described would result in many "false positives" - so not much help to FB in "understanding their ecology". Where is disagree with Sue D is that I cannot see that it would be fraudulent per se to have more than one FB account, for whatever reason. Logically, if it is legal to have more than one "real name" then it should also be legal to represent each identity separately. FB might choose to have an unenforceable rule that a "private individual" may have only one account, with less restriction on "public figures". If I am defrauding FB by having more than one account (including one for my dog!) then FB can sue me for fraud if it feels like it. I hate the way Google is going! It is unsafe and/or unhelpful for many people to share their real identity far and wide. These sort of policies are unlikely to deter fraudsters but will exclude or cause distress to many people who genuinely need to protect their privacy, whether for professional reasons or personal safety. Someone has already mentioned that internet harassment is a bigger problem for women and other groups targeted by bigots and bullies. FaceBook, Google and other providers should be paying a more attention to policies that would protect service users rather than increasing their vulnerability to attack.

  11. Sue Dernim · 1060 days ago

    @Liz, I agree having multiple accounts wouldn't be fraudulent per se, but if you were using the additional accounts to gain an advantage then you would be on dodgy ground.

  12. Guest · 1027 days ago

    Just stop using Facebook. It sucks anyway.

  13. Hank · 716 days ago

    Facebook is a private entity and is quite entitled to the enforcement of its guidelines. Using facebook is therefore a privilege and NOT a right. Anyone concerned about revealing such basic information as their name and general location can simply choose to network elsewhere. You have much less privacy out in public, using your phone, driving your car and swiping your credit / savings cards. People that follow the rules should not be at a disadvantage.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.