Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci takes on the increasing tendency of tech companies to require ‘real names’ of users, in order for them to use the service. Google + does it, Facebook does it — if they determine a user is using a pseudonym, they’ll suspend or expel the user.
What ramifications does this have for users in a repressive situation? Does it make it less likely for dissent to occur on the social networks — harder for opposition activists to organize on them — more likely they could face arrest or abuse?
According to Tufekci’s past research, the answer to these questions would seem to be a yes…
“As the Internet became more and more accessible, as more and more ordinary people joined, as increasing bandwidth facilitated sharing of photos and videos, and as it all became mundane and domesticated, Internet has increasingly emerged as an identity constraining medium as it allows for surveillance and triangulation of information about a person like never before.”
But in fact, she has a different take on the ‘real names’ vs. pseudonym-friendly debate, when it comes to its effect in repressive regimes.
She proposes that “the norm towards real(ish) names on Facebook has been a very fertile ground for dissent under autocracies. The close integration between online and offline persona which exists on Facebook is exactly the quality which makes Facebook very useful for reshaping the public sphere under undemocratic (and democratic) conditions; and the push towards real(ish) names helps further that integration.
Yes, Facebook may have removed some Egyptian activists for using pseudonyms when creating pages to honor victims of the Egyptian police – -and then only reinstating the page when one woman let her real identity be tied to the page. (as detailed by the Daily Beast here)
Tufekci argues that activists using tech will never be absolutely securely, so it may be better to just have them use their real names (in most cases) and hope that it ensures there are enough ‘real people’ tied to a cause online that individuals will be safe in the group.
“I certainly believe that there should be spaces, like Twitter and pseudonymous blogs which allow those in danger to express themselves while trying to minimize the repercussions. That said, there is no real safety in technology for activists and, ironically, there is more safety in numbers which the real name policy might actually help. Which means that we are increasingly headed for a future in which we try to both balance and protect pseudonymous spaces for activists, and risk the thread of hoaxes, traps and fiction, as well as identifiable spaces like Facebook, where people might put themselves in grave danger and within easy reach of the state.”
The more people are compelled to tie their ‘real’ offline presence to their online presence, the more good for the whole that may result (in Tufekci’s words, a reverse tragedy of the commons). Another benefit — more ‘real names’ may lead to less hoaxes, ala Amina Araf, the faked Syrian blogger who was outed as an invention of an American grad student, and then undercut some of the momentum of the Arab Spring.
So Tufekci’s overall message: some pseudonymous spaces online are necessary — but activists should beware the promise of pseudonymity as a false security — and if the numbers of people speaking out are going to be substantial enough, it may benefit all the individuals in the group to tie offline to online, and come out together in the hopes that the state can’t crack down on one if so many are speaking out.