News organizations should give equal priority to developing apps for other tablet computers and smartphones running on other kinds of mobile devices rather than focusing their flagship efforts primarily around Apple products.
And then there is Facebook. A growing number of news websites either require or strongly encourage users to log in with their Facebook account in order to post comments. Last year, both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal launched Facebook-based social news apps that enable people to see what news stories their friends are reading, sharing, and discussing. Facebook has been working with other news companies to develop similar apps.
The point of such collaborations is to reach new readers through existing readers’ friends’ networks and boost traffic to these companies’ content when hopefully more people click through to their news stories on the recommendation of friends and colleagues who share similar tastes, interests, and concerns. From a business perspective, it makes sense to pursue this sort of collaboration.
Facebook’s terms of service require account-holders to use their real names. When discovered, accounts using pseudonyms or fake identities are suspended or deactivated. There are still plenty of fake people on Facebook, but the more active and popular a person becomes within the network, the more likely their terms of service violations will be detected—or reported via Facebook’s abuse complaints mechanism by their enemies or others who wish them ill.
By tying their comments sections to Facebook logins—or by making it much easier and faster to comment via one’s Facebook login than having to register for a new account on the site—news organizations like the Los Angeles Times report that civility of comments threads and also cut down on considerable staff time that might otherwise be taken up vetting and moderating comments to keep out hate speech and obscenity.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg once remarked that people who do not identify themselves truthfully online “lack integrity.” There is something to the argument that anonymity is a convenient shield for people who do not want to be held responsible for hateful or outrageous speech benefit.
On the other hand, danah boyd, privacy advocate and expert on the online behavior of young people argues that requiring people to use their real names in social networks and news comments systems is “an authoritarian assertion of power” because it drives vulnerable people out of the public discourse—particularly around controversial issues.
A certain percentage of people out there will not participate in the online discussion of a news story—or share new information and personal observations that might even help to advance the story—if they can only easily do so under their real name. There are many reasons, including fear that their prospects for promotion or employment—or relations with family members—will be damaged if their name is linked directly to certain political views, or even recreational proclivities, or sexual preferences.
Some editors counter that this type of concern only affects a small segment of their audience and is therefore worth the tradeoff. For the individual news organization, that may sound reasonable given the need to conserve resources and increase traffic through social media partnerships.
The broader long-term context is more troubling, however. When a growing number of the country’s most influential and popular news organizations tie themselves into a social media platform that does not allow anonymity or pseudonymity, they are helping to shape an online public sphere in which unpopular and controversial speech becomes increasingly costly.
Independent and freelance journalists around the world rely heavily on social media—and particularly Facebook—to promote their work, and build an audience for their stories that may appear across a range of different news outlets. In many countries it is common for journalists to write under pen names—names that develop a distinctive voice, reputation and even credibility—in order to protect their families or for other cultural reasons.
Facebook’s real-name policy means that their enemies and critics can report them for terms of service abuse and get their accounts deactivated. In some countries, journalists use Facebook to reach their audiences even though it is dangerous to comply with the real name requirement. Across the Middle East and Africa, stories of people getting arrested as a result of their Facebook postings have become common. Just this month, the Palestinian Authority arrested a journalist for his Facebook postings, and the new Tunisian government imprisoned and sentenced two young bloggers for cartoons they had posted to their Facebook accounts.
The point, once again, is not that news companies should avoid partnerships with Facebook. However, news organizations do have a responsibility to consider what kind of rules for the global digital public discourse they are helping to reinforce.