Digital Redlining After Trump: Real Names + Fake News on Facebook

Last week Donald Trump, alleged billionaire and confirmed porn actor, was elected president of the United States of America.

However you feel about that, digital platforms are a way to make sense of our political sphere.

As an academic and a library fan, I wish it were probably less true than it is. But, the reality is millions of people rely on platforms like Facebook and Twitter for news, connection, and critical access to material resources like jobs and housing.

Today, Facebook told me that I needed to provide proof of my “real name” to continue using its digital platform.

You’ll notice I use the same name I use on other digital platforms: Tressie McPhd. Approximately 20,000 readers know me as that on Twitter. I have been cited thusly (much to my chagrin) in newspapers, broadcast news stories and academic articles. For better or for worse, the moniker I chose one night, maybe while a little drunk, over seven years ago has stuck. In that sense, it is a name.

I am not the only one to get this message this week. Lots of people reported similarly on Twitter.

Unfortunately for someone, I am a sociologist who studies digital sociology and I got this message this week.

Someone reported me after I posted to a media facebook page in support of students at my university marching this week in Richmond, VA

Now, this could be coincidence (or correlation, no claims to causation) but I have more than a little experience studying and participating in digitally-mediated social movement activities. Let’s talk a bit about what I know and how I come to know it. And, then I’ll tell you why this kind of behavior is likely to 1) increase during this Presidential administration and 2) doesn’t bode well for the legitimacy of social networking sites among non-white and non-Western users.

“We’ll Do Anything Not To Talk To Users”

In a study I am conducting of how moral economies are enacted at social media bureaucracies, one participant told me that most social media companies erect layers of barriers to dis-incentivize interacting with users.

That’s classic organizational strategy. The iron cage, as Weber called it, depends on this kind of distance between the ritual myth about what a bureaucracy says it is (e.g. “a people business!”) and what it actually does (e.g. sell marketing).

It isn’t an accident, then, that as a user you can rarely get hold of a person at a social media company unless you are a celebrity or you are buying advertising.

But, social media is a powerful tool to shape public discourse. We all try to do it, including myself. I publish in public places hoping to encourage willing others to read what I read or to think about what I think about.

If I wanted to, I could encourage all the people who read me to help me shape discourse by engaging people who do not agree with us. That’s fairly common in public discourse. It is also increasingly common to use technological skills and bureaucratic inefficiencies to stack the deck in public discourse.

One way to do that: short-circuit the systems put in place to limit user contact by appealing to exceptions like Facebook’s “real name policy”. The policy, according to Facebook, is designed to quell social media attacks:

Because Facebook wants to demonstrate that theirs is a moral business producing goods and experiences in an ethical way, they actually talk to users who are affected by the real name procedures.

Therefore, reporting someone for profanity or racism on Facebook is less likely to elicit a corporate response than reporting them for not using their “real name”, as many users have found out. It is more common that Facebook will ban non-white, non-male, non-Western users for violating ethical codes when they write against racism or sexism or inequality than they will ban those who post actual racist or sexist content. See the case of popular black writer, Son of Baldwin:

Facebook has created a set of perverse incentives by responding piece-meal to issues of civil liberties and public speech. Because the “real name” policy is important to its core business, it allocates resources to policing it. Those resources are, based on how many reports of racism and sexism on the site that go unbanned, presumably greater than the resources allocated to other types of speech acts on the platform. Therefore, to influence public discourse users can and do, by many accounts, target the accounts of people who disagree with them by reporting them not for content violations but for violating the real name policy:

The latter is more likely to get the attention that comes with additional resources and is a more efficient means of silencing unwelcome if not illegal or unethical speech.

That would be why I was reported after posting to a local media Facebook page, a page more central to public discourse and especially since the content was about President Trump.

Digital Redlining: Fake News By Patriots and No Dissent From “The Other”

This week, Mark Zuckerberg denied that the rash of fake news on Facebook could have influenced public opinion during the election.

It is notoriously difficult to prove a direct causal link between what people read or consume in media and how they act.

But, that never stopped Facebook and other social media platforms for accepting credit for spreading democracy during the Arab Spring:

Facebook has a dream of being a media platform without being a media company. Media companies have to pay employees to produce and vet media. Media platforms merely consume voluntary content and profit from advertising it. I’d rather be a platform, too. It seems like a much better gig.

It is, however, a gig for which our society isn’t yet set up for. Legitimacy still matters. And as social life becomes more complex, legitimacy may matter more and not less.

In the meanwhile, those who create fake news for profit have a lot in common with those who report news they don’t agree with as an illegal “other” in the digitally-mediated social sphere that is Facebook.

When the platform’s architecture privileges these kind of subverise anti-speech acts, it is creating a moral economy for content and persons. That moral economy, at present, privileges fake news and real names over pluralism and informed debate. And, it will necessarily privilege the already privileged at the expense of women, people of color, and other minority groups.

This has been called digital redlining:

how the shape of information access controls the intellectual (and, ultimately, financial) opportunities of some

This kind of stratified access to information and participation in digitally-mediated social interactions isn’t just about who can post cat memes and who is denied.

As Facebook itself had to admit this week, its platform has become a central means for distributing access to favorable information about jobs, housing, banking, and financial resources.

Being othered on Facebook increasingly means being relegated to unfavorable information schemes that shape the quality of your life.

If you are a black woman, like me, that can mean my ability to promote my new book (that was advertising), communicate with my college students, share legitimate information or sources with those who cannot access the academy, and shape the preferences of people similarly marked as “black” and “woman” in Facebook’s affinity algorithms to skew away from class-based assumptions is severely undermined.

This creates what sociologists Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy call “classification situations”, or unfavorable, stratified access schemes controlled by data beyond our individual control that nevertheless impact our life chances, or mobility and well-being.

And one less uppity black woman on Facebook saying she is proud of her students for exercising their civic duties is one way to create fake news moral economies on the social media platform that would be, if it had its druthers, the whole internet.

In the President Trump world that may be the internet we have but it is not the internet that we need.


Update. As of 1 PM on November 14, 2016, Facebook had indeed locked me out of my account. I was able to extract ten years of photos first, which is important. But, it does mean both my professional and personal accounts are gone. So, whomever reported me won this round.

If you’re keeping track. It took approximately 29 hours from report to cancellation.


A Reading List (courtesy of Tarleton Gillespie of the Microsoft Research Social Media Collective):

boyd, danah. (2012). The politics of “real names.” Communications of the ACM, 55(8), 29. https://doi.org/10.1145/2240236.2240247
 
Cho, D., & Acquisti, A. (2013). The more social cues, the less trolling? An empirical study of online commenting behavior. Retrieved from http://repository.cmu.edu/heinzworks/341/
 
Cho, D., Kim, S., & Acquisti, A. (2012). Empirical analysis of online anonymity and user behaviors: the impact of real name policy (pp. 3041–3050). IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/HICSS.2012.241
 
Edwards, L., & McAuley, D. (2013). What’s in a name? Real name policies and social networks. In Proceedings of 1st International Workshop on Internet Science and Web Science Synergies (INETWEBSCI), Paris, France (Vol. 1). Retrieved from http://www.cs.nott.ac.uk/~pszdrm/papers/2013_NamesHavePower%20paris%20vn.pdf
 
Haimson, O. L., & Hoffmann, A. L. (2016). Constructing and enforcing“ authentic” identity online: Facebook, real names, and non-normative identities. First Monday, 21(6). Retrieved from http://ojs-prod-lib.cc.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6791
 
Karppi, T. (2013). “Change name to No One. Like people”s status’ Facebook Trolling and Managing Online Personas. The Fibreculture Journal, (22 2013: Trolls and The Negative Space of the Internet). Retrieved from http://twentytwo.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-166-change-name-to-no-one-like-peoples-status-facebook-trolling-and-managing-online-personas/
 
Lingel, J., & Gillespie, T. (2014, October 2). One Name to Rule Them All: Facebook’s Identity Problem. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/one-name-to-rule-them-all-facebook-still-insists-on-a-single-identity/381039/
 
Raynes-Goldie, K. (2010). Aliases, creeping, and wall cleaning: Understanding privacy in the age of Facebook. First Monday, 15(1). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2775
 
van Dijck, J. (2013). “You have one identity”: performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn. Media, Culture & Society, 35(2), 199–215. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443712468605