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.
Are those rules ultimately good for journalism, or for citizens’ and journalists’ right to free speech, and therefore the future of democracy more broadly? News organizations should use their relationships and influence with Facebook to push for changes in how Facebook handles its identity policies, as well as its privacy policies and settings that may be putting the most vulnerable types of journalists at risk around the world.
Self interest has also led major American companies that own some of the country’s biggest and most influential news organizations to support legislation and government policy that is ultimately harmful to independent journalism, free expression, and hence democracy. Disney (which owns ABC), The CBS Corporation, Comcast-NBCUniversal, News Corp, and Time Warner (which owns CNN and other news properties) were all strong supporters and advocates of the Stop Online Piracy Act, better known as SOPA.
The bill was on the verge of passing in January, until a wave of nationwide activism killed it. According to the website Media Matters, in the fourth quarter of 2011 these companies plus the National Cable & Telecommunications Association spent millions of dollars on 28 different lobbying firms to lobby Congress on SOPA and Protect IP.