When Facebook removed a Chinese dissenter's account, on the basis that Michael Anti was not his real name, he was left wondering whether the platform was ultimately fitting for dissent at all.
The Chinese journalist Michael Anti had his Facebook account deleted in January. The reason Facebook gave was that Michael Anti isn’t his real, government-recorded, name–which is true. Instead, Anti is the name that he has written under for almost a decade, on his own personal blogs, and in his writing for the New York Times and other publications. It’s the name on his Harvard fellowship documents. It’s what his public knows him as. It’s what you would search for if you were looking for his writing, or aiming to get in touch.
Facebook’s “real name policy” will not accept such a pseudonym as the primary name on his account, and Anti was unwilling to change his account to reflect his birth name. That led to the removal, not only of his account, but his links with a thousand or so contacts he had made on the service since 2007.
Facebook’s real name policy is long-established, and strongly defended by the company. But its ramifications are subtle, and end up a long way from what Facebook claims when it says it leads to a safer online environment. When dealing with the pseudonymity and celebrity of journalists working in dangerous conditions, it can lead to the quite the opposite.
Anti’s anger with Facebook grew when he heard that the company now had a page for founder Mark Zuckerberg’s new dog, Beast. As Anti told The Associated Press: “My journalistic work and academic work is more real than a dog.”
Like many commercial Internet giants, as Facebook has grown, it has taken on many more functions: some deliberately, and some as a result of its users adapting its features for their own needs. It has moved from a simple tool for college students, to a 600-million-strong forum for sharing personal and public news. Games and private messaging have become as vital parts of Facebook’s economy as sharing personal details. Facebook groups like the million-strong ElShaheeed have become the struts behind revolutions. News items are published, read, and shared on Facebook just as they are on the open Web and e-mail.
Facebook’s attempts to reflect these new uses have led to some subtle and byzantine rules and structures, often haphazardly enforced. Everyone is required to use their real name: but Anti used his account for three years, before anyone at Facebook challenged him. Zuckerberg’s dog gets a free ride on the service without a “real name” because Facebook has declared him a “public figure.” Zuckerberg’s dog, like other “public figures,” has a page that looks like a normal account page, but he doesn’t have friends (you can “like” him instead). Such pages also can not send or receive Facebook messages.
That’s okay for a dog–or a politician or a celebrity wishing to maintain a one-way connection with Facebook fans. But if you’re a journalist working in a regime that is cracking down on press freedom, much of the point of maintaining a presence on social networks is to stay in close and constant touch with your readers, your sources and fellow writers. There’s both a journalistic and a safety function to such connections. As Anti himself compellingly argued in aNew York Times editorial about social media, news spread through even weak ties like Facebook contacts is vital for keeping the flow of news alive. Facebook posts act as on-the-ground news reports. Private messaging can allow sources to stay in touch–and enable warnings to be spread.
Such activity is happening right now in China. In the current clampdown on media coverage of the Egypt-related protests on the mainland, journalists and their sources are exchanging a flurry of warnings of places not to go, reports of colleagues who have been threatened as well as a vital exchange of story leads and eyewitness reports.
Perhaps, though, Facebook is simply not the best vehicle for such discussions? As a technologist, that would certainly be the advice I would give. Despite recent improvements, CPJ has had too many reports of direct interception and malicious information gathering via Facebook to recommend it as a truly secure medium.
But, practically, when the site has 600 million users, and heavily encourages those users to use its internal messaging system, avoiding Facebook is almost impossible when gathering and reporting news, even in China where the service is blocked.
For many Net users, Facebook has become the preferred and sometimes the only way to stay in contact. You can only reach out to these users if you stay a member of Facebook. If you leave or have your account deleted, Facebook will not provide you with any way to remain in contact with those you communicated with. Delete an e-mail account, and you can take away your e-mail address book. Throw away your phone, and you get to keep your friend’s phone numbers. If you leave or are thrown off Facebook, as Anti was, you will lose all contact with anyone who chose to reach out to you on that medium. Facebook refuseniks have to deal with the reality that leaving Facebook not only isolates you, but isolates those of your audience who use Facebook as their primary communication: a minor irritation in some countries, but genuinely dangerous in others.
Facebook, as is its right, scraped the information for both of those pages from public information on Wikipedia. The real Anti has no control over them.
Like Zuckerberg’s dog, you can’t message these Antis, or make friends with them. You can “like” them, though. Note, though, that Facebook recently changed what happens when you click on the “like” button. These days, it will automatically post a headline, blurb, and thumbnail to your profile.
Again, that’s hardly a big change if all you are doing is liking a dog on the Internet. But “liking” Anti or other challenging journalists so publicly in China may not be a wise act under the current conditions.
It’s the sort of subtle ramification of Facebook technology changes a tech-savvy local reporter like Anti might choose to inform and warn his readers about, especially on his own page. But the “real” Anti can’t do that. He isn’t real enough for Facebook. Instead, only these silent placeholders remain.
This article was originally published by The Committee to Protect Journalists.
Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr CC Grahamtastic
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