How Facebook’s real-name policy changed social media forever

The debate over anonymity extends to every corner of the internet, but may matter most on social networks.

Book cover of "The United States of Anonymous" by Jeff Kosseff

Although the First Amendment does not prohibit platforms from deciding whether to limit anonymity or pseudonymity, these choices impact the culture of anonymity empowerment.

Image: Cornell University Press

The following is an excerpt from “The United States of Anonymous,” by Jeff Kosseff. The book is available now.

Listen to our conversation with the author on the Source Code Podcast.

Many ground rules for Internet anonymity are set not by courts or legislators, but by the private platforms that are the gateways to the Internet. Social media sites, online discussion forums, and other platforms are private companies that are not restricted by the First Amendment. They are free to decide the level of anonymity or pseudonymity that their users receive. And some platforms have decided to require all or most of their users to identify themselves by their real names.

Although the First Amendment does not prohibit platforms from deciding whether to limit anonymity or pseudonymity, these choices impact the culture of anonymity empowerment. Regardless of the protections that the First Amendment might provide for anonymity, a private company’s decision to ban anonymity could make it more difficult for users to separate their identities from their speech.

The nation’s largest social media provider, Facebook, has long had a fairly stringent real-name policy. In an interview in 2009, founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told David Kirkpatrick that he always differed with those who said that Facebook should allow people to open separate profiles for their professional and social lives. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg told Kirkpatrick that maintaining dual identities “is an example of a lack of integrity,” and “the level of transparency the world has now won’t support having two identities for a person.” He said that transparency enables people to be more accountable for their behavior. “To get people to this point where there’s more openness—that’s a big challenge,” Zuckerberg said. “But I think we’ll do it. I just think it will take time. The concept that the world will be better if you share more is something that’s pretty foreign to a lot of people and it runs into all these privacy concerns.” Although Zuckerberg’s comments did not explicitly criticize anonymity, a single-identity policy makes it difficult to engage in the anonymous and pseudonymous speech that has defined so much online discourse.

Soon after Zuckerberg’s remarks were published, Michael Zimmer aptly noted that people routinely control what information they communicate depending on whether they are at work or socializing. “It is not that you pretend to be someone that you are not; rather, you turn the volume up on some aspects of your identity, and tone down others, all based on the particular context you find yourself,” Zimmer wrote.

Facebook’s focus on a single identity stemmed from its commitment to “radical transparency.” As Kirkpatrick described it, the philosophy goes like this: “Since the world is likely to become more and more open anyway, people might as well get used to it. . . . Everything is going to be seen.”

But as danah boyd pointed out in an essay responding to Zuckerberg’s comments, Facebook had failed to be radically transparent in its own operations. Users, boyd noted, were often unaware of how their data were collected, used, and shared. “Users have no sense of how their data is being used and Facebook is not radically transparent about what that data is used for,” boyd wrote in 2010. “Quite the opposite. Convolution works. It keeps the press out.”

Over the years, Facebook has enforced its real-name policy by locking accounts of some users who allegedly violated its rules. In 2011, the company reportedly closed the account of Chinese commentator Michael Anti, who was born with the name Zhao Jing. Although he had presented Facebook with a Harvard University certificate identifying him as Michael Anti, Facebook told him that he needed to present a government ID card containing the name. A Facebook spokesperson told the Guardian newspaper that its policy was designed to promote trust and safety: “We fundamentally believe this leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for people who use the service. This viewpoint has been developed by our own research and in consultation with a number of safety and child protection experts.”

While real-name requirements may be intended to promote safety, they also could threaten safety. In 2015, British journalist Laurie Penny’s Facebook account was locked because she had been using a pseudonym. “Thanks to @facebook forcing me to use my real name, I am now at more risk of rape and death threats,” Penny wrote on Twitter at the time. “But enjoy flogging that data, guys.”

Facebook has changed its real-name practices a bit over the years to accommodate some concerns. In 2014, San Francisco drag queens, including Sister Roma and Lil Miss Hot Mess, were suspended from Facebook due to its real-name policy. They met with Facebook representatives and argued that the real-name policy could hurt not only them, but many other groups, such as undocumented immigrants. Facebook executive Chris Cox later released a statement explaining the company’s reasoning for its real-name policy, but agreed there is “lots of room for improvement” in its procedures. “With this input, we’re already underway building better tools for authenticating the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors,” Cox said. “And we’re taking measures to provide much more deliberate customer service to those accounts that get flagged so that we can manage these in a less abrupt and more thoughtful way.”

In an online Q&A in June 2015, Zuckerberg clarified that Facebook’s real-name policy did not necessarily require users to provide legal names. “Your real name is whatever you go by and what your friends call you,” Zuckerberg said. “If your friends all call you by a nickname and you want to use that name on Facebook, you should be able to do that. In this way, we should be able to support everyone using their own real names, including everyone in the transgender community.”

The company changed its real-name procedures later that year, after criticism from advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community as well as domestic violence victims’ advocates. It began requiring people who flag false names to provide “additional context” for the review, seeking to reduce the amount of verification requests that it sends to users. Second, it developed a tool that it said would allow the users of flagged accounts to “let us know they have a special circumstance, and then give us more information about their unique situation."

Facebook did not eliminate its real-name policy; it only promised two more procedural changes. And even those proved to be controversial. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has criticized real-name policies, said that the new tool that allows users to justify a “special circumstance” would effectively force “those who are most vulnerable to reveal even more information about their intimate, personal lives.” Pressuring them to disclose more personal information results “in a remedy that is useless and risks putting them in a more dangerous situation should Facebook share those personal details,” Eva Galperin and Wafa Ben Hassine of EFF wrote.

Safety is a primary justification for Facebook’s real-name policy. The company said it concluded that anonymity and pseudonymity can allow people to more easily harass, abuse, and intimidate others. In response to concerns that its real-name policies endangered some of its more vulnerable users, Facebook tried to mitigate these risks by offering the new tool to allow people to explain their unique situations that prevent them from complying with the policy. Yet even that solution raised safety concerns.

Facebook and other platforms have valid reasons for attempting to better identify the sources of user content. For instance, Brian Friedberg and Joan Donovan documented many cases of “pseudonymous influence operations,” in which “politically motivated actors impersonate marginalized, underrepresented, and vulnerable groups to either malign, disrupt, or exaggerate their causes.” Among the case studies that they document is Facebook’s 2018 removal of fake accounts created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency that purported to be run by Black and LGBT activists. Such pseudonymous operations, Friedberg and Donovan wrote, “intentionally or unintentionally reproduce social harm by degrading trust in the authenticity of marginalized people.” Pseudonymous speech is not the same as deceptive or false speech, and even platforms that allow pseudonymous accounts generally prohibit impersonation. But a policy that allows pseudonymity also may be more likely to pave the way for misleading accounts. The debate over real-name policies shows how the Safety Motivation for anonymity cuts both ways: while anonymity or pseudonymity would protect Facebook users from many types of threats, the company is just as concerned about the harmful potential uses of anonymity. Facebook is concerned about anonymity’s use as a sword, while its critics argue that anonymity is a vital shield.

Despite the pushback that Facebook received and its procedural changes, as of early 2021, Facebook continued to have a real-name policy. “Facebook is a community where everyone uses the name they go by in everyday life,” the company wrote in its online Help Center. The company requires profile names to appear on an ID document such as, among other things, a government ID, bank statement, library card, utility bill, or car insurance card. Although this policy is a bit less restrictive than one that permits only legal names, it curtails the full range of pseudonymous and anonymous speech. Merely having a real-name policy does not prevent every user from having fake names. During the first quarter of 2021, Facebook estimates, about 5 percent of its worldwide monthly active users were fake accounts, and the company took action on 1.3 billion fake accounts.

The survival of Facebook’s real-name policy despite persistent criticism reveals the power that companies wield in determining the level of anonymity that people may employ online. The First Amendment provides a baseline level of anonymity that the government may not restrict, but people may be unable to fully exercise those anonymity rights if the companies that serve as gateways to much of the Internet prohibit them from doing so.

Facebook is not the only platform to require real names. Websites of all sizes have experimented with various levels of anonymity and pseudonymity, and many concluded that the costs of anonymous comments outweigh the benefits. In 2013, the Patriot-Ledger newspaper in Quincy, Massachusetts, began requiring commenters to comment via their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles. “For some time, we’ve received complaints that the anonymous commenting system we’ve hosted on our online stories does little to enhance the conversation within our community,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial announcing the change. “The criticism has been that some of the comments are hateful and sometimes, downright objectionable. We heard you and we agree.” Also that year, the Huffington Post began requiring commenters to post under their real names. “Freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they’re saying and who are not hiding behind anonymity,” Ariana Huffington, then the site’s editor-in-chief, said. “Maintaining a civil environment for real conversation and community has always been key to the Huffington Post.”

Other platforms have taken a more anonymity-friendly approach. Reddit, a massive collection of online bulletin boards run by volunteer moderators, requires users to create usernames, but those need not be connected to their real names. As Reddit states in its content policy: “You don’t have to use your real name to use Reddit, but don’t impersonate an individual or an entity in a misleading or deceptive manner.” And many Reddit moderators have gone a step further, removing posts that “dox,” or reveal the true identities of other posters. “When people detach from their real-world identities, they can be more authentic, more true to themselves,” Reddit chief executive Steve Huffman said in 2018.

True selves are not always socially desirable. Some user-created boards, or “subreddits,” have enabled some users to anonymously traffic in racist content, celebrity nude photos, and violence. A 2019 study of six million Reddit posts created between 2011 and 2018 found “increasing patterns on misogynistic content and users as well as violent attitudes.” Yet Reddit’s relative anonymity has fostered some of the communities that believed they were disenfranchised by Facebook’s real-name policy. Emily VanDerWerff wrote of the welcoming communities for trans people that were created by anonymity on Reddit and Twitter. “The big reason to use an anonymous Twitter or Reddit account is to protect one’s identity in the hope of exploring a new one,” VanDerWerff wrote. “This is perhaps why anonymous social media accounts that people gradually start to use more than their ‘real’ accounts so frequently belong to trans women.”

Like Reddit, Twitter has taken a different approach from Facebook to anonymity and pseudonymity, reflecting the very real impact that corporate choices can have on identity disclosures. Twitter has had a longstanding policy against requiring users to publicly disclose their real names, though it does prohibit “accounts that pose as another person, brand, or organization in a confusing or deceptive manner.” At a 2011 town hall, Chief Executive Dick Costolo said that the lack of a real-name policy stemmed not from idealism, but from a desire to better serve consumer demand. “We’re not wedded to pseudonyms,” he said. “We’re wedded to people being able to use the service as they see fit.” As Mathew Ingram wrote about Costolo’s remarks, “Twitter realizes it can provide plenty of value for users (and thus for advertisers) without having to know your real name.”

Many Twitter users have long relied on the lack of a real-name policy. In an analysis of 2010 data from Twitter, New York University researchers found that 26 percent of Twitter accounts were either fully or partly anonymous (i.e., only providing part of a name). The researchers found that more than 20 percent of the followers of accounts in “sensitive” categories such as Islamophobia, gay/lesbian, and marijuana were anonymous, while fewer than 10 percent of the followers of “nonsensitive” categories were anonymous.

The anonymity-permissive nature of Twitter has not been free of problems and criticism. In 2018, Twitter told the Senate Judiciary Committee that fifty thousand automated Russian accounts—or bots—were behind more than 4 percent of the retweets of Donald Trump’s account from September 1 to November 15, 2016. Fake Twitter accounts also enabled people to boost their numbers of followers. A 2018 New York Times article documented an underground industry of fake Twitter accounts, and estimated that up to 15 percent of Twitter’s active users “are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower.”

Billionaire Mark Cuban tweeted then that if the company “were to eliminate bots and accounts individuals won’t put their real names behind, your revenues and user base and usage would skyrocket as a result of users and advertisers feeling safer on the platform.” But such a change would lead to some of the problems that Facebook has confronted with its real-name policy. “Think about closeted LGBT individuals who may not be in a position to be open about their identities,” Matthew Hughes observed. “The anonymity Twitter offers means they have an avenue for personal expression, while remaining anonymous.”

Moreover, even companies that impose aggressive real-name policies may be susceptible to abuse by bad actors. For example, despite Facebook’s real-name policy for individual users, Russian propagandists managed to reach 126 million Facebook users during the 2016 presidential campaign. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 2018 indictment of thirteen Russian propagandists outlined, Russians distributed the Facebook propaganda using fictitious groups such as “United Muslims of America” and “Being Patriotic,” and they even managed to create a fictitious individual, “Matt Skiber,” to organize an event for Trump. It is impossible to quantify how much more Russian misinformation would have spread on Facebook had it not had a real-name policy, but the Mueller indictment shows that its policies were not a bulletproof method of preventing impersonation on its services.

The question that online services must address is whether the benefits of real-name policies outweigh the benefits of anonymity and pseudonymity. At least part of the answer comes from the free market. Consumer demand will ultimately determine whether a platform should have a realname policy and any exceptions to that rule. If a platform’s stringent real name policy prevents its users from engaging in candid conversations, the platform may lose customers. But if a platform is overrun by anonymous trolls, it is unlikely to attract a broad user base, although there is a history of niche anonymous and pseudonymous sites such as AutoAdmit that can cause substantial damage despite having relatively small numbers of users.

But it is questionable whether requiring real names improves the level of discourse on social media. A 2016 analysis of a German online petition website reviewed more than half a million comments on more than 1,600 petitions. The researchers hypothesized that the commenters who used their real names would be more aggressive. “Aggressive commentors have nothing to hide: they stand up for higher-order moral ideals and principles,” they wrote. And the research confirmed that hypothesis; they found that “more online aggression is obtained by non-anonymous commenters and not by anonymous commenters.”

Likewise, some research has found that pseudonymous online discussions tend to be of higher quality. Disqus, which provides online comment platforms for websites, reported in 2012 that commenters using pseudonyms commented nearly five times as often as those who were required to use their real names via Facebook logins and concluded that “pseudonyms are the most valuable contributors to communities because they contribute the highest quantity and quality of comments.”

A platform’s determination that real-name policies are in its business interests does not necessarily mean that they are in the best interests of society. While companies such as Facebook have presented reasonable explanations for their real-name requirements, many harms that the policies seek to prevent will still occur, as the worst actors will be able to circumvent the real-name policies. Yet real-name policies can harm the transgender community, domestic violence victims, and others who might face serious consequences from the use of their real names. Because of the serious consequences for some of the most vulnerable groups, real-name policies often are not in the best interests of society.

Reprinted from "The United States of Anonymous: How the First Amendment Shaped Online Speech," by Jeff Kosseff. Copyright (c) 2022 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.


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