Facebook and Free Speech: Reinforcing the Echo Chamber

In this Motherboard article, Vice yesterday highlighted some of the internal changes to Facebook’s policy on acceptable speech after the events of Charlottesville last year.

Facebook Free Speech Policy
Image via Motherboard. Included under the fair use doctrine.

Specifically, it was noted that Facebook distinguish between statements supporting a white nationalist ideology, and white supremacy, with the latter in particular considered to be associated with racism – something prohibited on the platform. In response, there have been arguments that this distinction is meaningless, and that Facebook is effectively allowing Nazis to operate on their network as a result.

Facebook infamously ‘curates’ what its users see through the use of algorithms, and they have faced ongoing criticisms that ‘echo chambers’ are created as a direct result. This was particularly true in light of both Donald Trump’s Presidential election victory, and the outcome of the EU membership referendum in the UK. On a personal note, it was something that first became obvious after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

With this in mind, the question becomes what people actually want or expect Facebook to be. On one hand, the possibility of anybody sharing far right or extremist ideologies is seen as abhorrent and unacceptable, but on the other, the cultivation of echo chambers that distort political and social reality is decried as irresponsible.

Unfortunately, you can’t break through an online bubble by only allowing that which you find inoffensive to be shared.

The obvious response here is that there is a difference between healthy debate and sharing views which are hateful. However, this is something of a liberal utopian ideal which doesn’t actually play out in practice. Argument is messy. Debate isn’t always healthy. People don’t always play fairly. All of this is self-evident and will remain true whenever those with opposing positions come into conflict. Arguably, those beliefs that are considered most heinous are precisely those which need to be heard, challenged, and resisted, and in the same vein, the areas online which foster these biases without question need to be opened up to opposition.

If all we want is Facebook to be a safe space to share pictures of our dogs and holiday photos, then that is one thing. However, that is never going to be the reality, irrespective of what some may claim. Whenever people have space to express themselves, they will share their views on how the world should be. If we want to avoid all of the problems that doing so within the so-called echo chambers brings, then we need to stop reinforcing them by banning the very opposing views that would break them apart in the first place.

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Facebook’s Real Name Policy is Back

Facebook have pushed ahead with the enforcement of their ‘real name’ policy, which requires users to use their real, or ‘authentic’ name.

This comes after a previous attempt stalled, following an uproar from the community which forced Facebook to give a rare apology.

Here’s the gist of the requirements:

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Source: https://www.facebook.com/help/112146705538576

Sounds fair enough on the surface of it, and gives enough room for interpretation to allow aliases or nicknames – precisely what appeased the criticisms from last time. However, the practical implementation seems quite different.

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Again, these additional requirements don’t seem too restrictive. If anything, they seem fairly flexible, whilst retaining some sort of continuity. However, the practical implementation has been completely different.

Today, there have been reports that users have been locked out of their accounts, after Facebook has deemed their names to not be ‘authentic’ enough. This included a determination that the name ‘Daz’ (a common offshoot of Darren) was not acceptable, and ‘Nikki’ should be changed to ‘Nicola’ – despite the insistence that shortened nicknames (like ‘Bob’ in the case of Robert) are fine.

Now comes the kicker. In order to get back into your account, you either need to provide a ‘real’ name, or some sort of ‘acceptable identification’ to prove that you are known by the name or alias you had beforehand.

Let’s take a look at what the acceptable forms of identification are, according to Facebook:

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Uhm, sorry… what? Despite their warning that you should be sure to blank out any other personal information, there is no reason in hell that anybody should ever be giving copies of the above documents to Facebook. The idea that this would ever be requested is completely ridiculous. If Facebook demanded I send a copy of my passport – redacted or otherwise – then they would be politely told where to shove it.

But hey! Should you not wish to share such an important piece of sensitive ID with a social network based in a different country, you have another option. You can provide two bits of ID from the following list:

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This just becomes more ludicrous. Here’s why:

  • There is no way for Facebook to verify any of the above properly.
  • All of this ‘evidence’ can easily be doctored by any muppet.
  • Even if you are known by a certain name in your everyday life, you won’t have that alias on official documents that require your legal name. In which case, how on earth are you meant to prove the existence of a nickname?
  • WTF is a ‘permit’ anyway?

There are plenty of reasons why people would legitimately want to avoid using their full, legal name online (those in teaching, or the health service, or…); those who have already lost the ability to remain hidden in searches thanks to previous changes, with the process to use a nickname or alias instead verging on the impossible. But there’s something far more fundamental here: That it’s absolutely fuck all to do with Facebook what name you choose to go by. Making determinations about what is and isn’t ‘authentic’ is evidence of an organisation that has no concern for its users other than its own commercial interests.

We need to find a better way to communicate than this by using this lot.

Wave Goodbye to Anonymity on Facebook

anonymityJust after I posted a week or so ago reflecting on my return to a more open Facebook existence, they’ve gone and announced that they are doing away with one of the privacy features that was so important to staying anonymous on the site.

In a blog post posted yesterday, Facebook quietly announced that they were getting rid of the ability to hide your name from searches – stating that it was irrelevant since people could still click on your name in comments that you make on other people’s timelines.

In the words of Michael Richter – Chief Privacy Officer:

people told us that they found it confusing when they tried looking for someone who they knew personally and couldn’t find them in search results

Well, too bad for them. If I choose to be hidden from search results, then it’s my conscious choice. Facebook shouldn’t be second guessing the reasons for users to wish to remain harder to find on the site.

Apparently a ‘tiny’ proportion of Facebook’s billion plus users were making use of the privacy setting, which eh… still equates to a huge number of people. It shouldn’t really be any surprise, given that the settings were so unintuitive to find and use. Make something hard to configure, and you have a perfect excuse to remove it later when the adoption rate is relatively low.

This move essentially means that there is no way to keep out of the spotlight on Facebook any longer – confirming my belief that Facebook is designed to incrementally pull you further in to the network, even when you purposefully want to remain on the outskirts. Even if you restrict all of your posts to a limited number of people, you are still going to have to contend with the fact that people will be able to find you in searches, and explain why you have decided not to ‘confirm their friendship.

The only way to get around this will be to use a fake name and e-mail address, but that is forbidden by the site’s policies, and could see you booted for good.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Observations from a Facebook exile

A number of years ago I found myself staring at my laptop, fretting over how to best represent myself up in a single paragraph – for MySpace, none the less. It was at that point that I decided that enough was enough. One by one, I deleted my various ‘social networking’ accounts, before that was even really a word we attached too much baggage to. There wasn’t any pomp or ceremony; no feigned outrage. I simply dropped off the radar.

It was liberating.

More than any other network, leaving Facebook was the most satisfactory, and I wrote a blog to explain why that was after a few months of questioning. A lingering anxiety about what other people’s perceptions faded away. There was no pressure to think about what audience my comments were being directed towards; how I should present myself; or what things I could and shouldn’t say. I didn’t spend time flicking through the profiles of people to check up into what they were doing, and didn’t inevitably feel like I was being left out somehow. There wasn’t the same feeling that everybody in the world was having a massive party, and that even if you were invited, it was just to be polite.

After a few days, the constant stream of mundane updates from people who I wasn’t even that friendly with in person gained perspective. The behaviour of those whose social interactions were wound up so tightly into the fabric of Facebook, referencing it in all sorts of situations, began to seem increasingly unusual – just as the acts and seeming communitas of those deeply embroiled in drug use are impenetrable to those who are not going through the same experience. Facebook seemed like a bizarre addiction that I was glad to be rid of.

But there were consequences.

drowning in data

Whilst being removed from immediate exposure to every detail of other people’s lives was undeniably a relief, it became clear that there was very little in the way of a middle ground in this regard; many people who I was in touch with beforehand just disappeared completely. In a way, this was a great test of seeing who was interested enough in you to continue to stay in contact, but it isn’t really that simple. I discovered that I no longer knew anything about nights out organised by friends, as ‘invitations’ had been sent out online. When I challenged people about this? The response was simple: “Well you’re not on Facebook.” The default mode of communication had switched in people’s minds, and if you weren’t there too, then that was your problem.

This carried on into other areas. When deciding to terminate my account, I was painfully aware that there were a number of people who I dearly wished to remain in touch with, but who stayed in different cities that were strewn across the globe. I dismissed this at the time by asserting confidently that if we really wanted to speak, we would do so; Facebook isn’t the only way to communicate on the web after all. Thing is, whilst that might be a nice idea in theory, trying to get other people to make the mental shift towards sending e-mails rather than what they have become used to turned out to be a fool’s errand.

It was this that eventually led me to the position that I held up until the recent past. Upon travelling through America with no phone, and no way to contact people that I met, I decided to sign up for a Facebook account that I would keep entirely for people who I didn’t get to see in real life. I used a fake name and details; kept the privacy settings as tight as possible; and told everybody else that I simply didn’t use it anymore.

To some extent, it worked. I was buffered from most of what I had hated about the network so much in the first place, but it brought with it its own variety of problems. What happens when friends of your friends add you? You can’t exactly explain to them that you aren’t accepting the connection because it’s for people in a different place, because… well, so are they. What do you do about people in your own city that you don’t see very often, but for legitimate reasons? Are they excluded? Then there was the difficulty of dealing with other people giving you away by tagging you in posts (which you can’t do anything about if it’s on their timeline).

I’m back.

facebook list

Recently I decided that it was time to open the floodgates.

In the time I had spent living a secret Facebook existence, there had been changes. After consistent challenges from privacy advocates – including pressure from the European Commission – Facebook introduced additional controls to allow users to filter who saw what content. This was a welcome two finger salute to Zuckerberg’s totalising vision of people only having ‘one identity’. It meant that if you only wanted to see updates from certain people, you could. If you have to accept somebody as a friend, but don’t really want them to see everything you post, then you can sort that out as well. It was far from perfect, and remains so to this day. Many people are unaware of the possibilities; the settings are complicated and spread across different parts of the site; and the format is subject to such constant change that even users who are clued up can get confused in the process. However… it was a start. If I’m going to have a connection with someone halfway across the world that I’ve met once at a party, then I may as well have the same with people that I see every weekend. At that point, whether or not their tangible friendship is any more or less authentic is largely irrelevant.

It could well be the case that this is the inevitable result of the clever honey trap offered up by Facebook; offering more and more incrementally until you find yourself completely immersed in their network. It probably just underlines and demonstrates the hard truth that the only way to really avoid becoming sucked in is to delete your account completely. However, I don’t feel particularly bad about it anymore. I’ve put my qualms to one side. Years of working in marketing have meant that I am comfortable with the balancing act that is required, and frankly… it’s just a tool to promote the things that I am interested in. My real friends are still the ones I go drink copious amounts of whisky with; or cook with; or have long Skype conversations with. Facebook doesn’t have the same sort of hold, because the importance I place over transient relationships has diminished with time. I know who and what is important to me, so it doesn’t really matter anymore.

Insights from the Prodigal Son

It’s been a few weeks since I slipped back into the fold now, and it’s been interesting. Here’s what I’ve observed so far:

  • People really do post the most inane drivel. That goes without saying, but the sheer extent of it is almost unbelievable. People that I respect in real life come across as preachy, argumentative, naive, and simple-minded.
  • Despite getting bugged for years about signing up to Facebook, there was no massive rush for people to connect. Instead of actively seeking out others, people connect in a gradual way. I would say it’s organic, but it is heavily influenced by the prompts and suggestions offered by the service. Users are led in everything they do; passive rather than proactively engaged. Very few people actually use Facebook anymore with any sort of excitement or depth; it’s just something that’s become a ritual.
  • People check up on others a lot more than they post.
  • There is a severe drought of good original content. Rather than posting blogs, articles, poems, pictures, or things they’ve created, the same memes and drab political commentary is shared and re-shared without second thought.
  • The initial friend request is the only interaction I have had with almost all of those I’ve connected with since coming back onto Facebook ‘properly’.
  • People fail to respond to chat messages, despite appearing online, and actively resent any initiation to talk as some sort of intrusion. Coming from a web culture where you logged on to talk in this very manner, it boggles the mind why anybody would appear online if they have no intention to do so. This especially applies to people who have requested my friendship in the first place.
  • Even with contacts arranged into groups, there is still a strong inclination to default to the widest possible audience. That applies equally to reading, as well as publishing content. It’s difficult to resist looking through the full list to see what’s going on when you know it’s just a click away… and even though you know the lack of value.

Let’s see what happens next.

A Critical Look at Facebook’s Proposed Facial Recognition Feature

facebook facial recognition

A couple of weeks ago I was asked by the Open Rights Group to write an article up on the latest round of changes to Facebook’s various privacy policies. One of the changes relates to the extension of the ability for Facebook to deploy facial recognition software. Whilst not currently available in the EU as the result of a previous challenge, it caused quite a stir to see this idea raising its head again.

To be completely honest, I had very little opinion on facial recognition software on social networks at the time, and said as much. I couldn’t immediately see what the problem with it all was, and fully expected it to be just a knee-jerk reaction by those keen to jump on any changes made by Zuckerberg and co. As a result, I went into this with open eyes and an open mind, to see what I could find.

You can read all about it over on the Open Rights Group Zine.