How Deleting a Blogger’s Facebook Was Bad News For Activism
In January, Chinese journalist Zhao Jing discovered his Facebook profile of over three years had been deleted. The social networking service had recently learned of his treachery: Zhao had not registered on the site using the name issued on his government ID. Yet, few of his 1,000 friends and colleagues would have accepted the request from a Mr. Zhao Jing. Most call him Michael Anti, the blogger known for urging press freedoms in China.
Perhaps the fine folk at Facebook are too nestled in their Palo Alto bubble to realize that their emphasis on a “real name culture” can be a problem when your government is an oppressive regime on the lookout for dissidents.
As it is, Chinese immigrants and exchange students already often Anglicize their names upon entering Western communities. Of course, Facebook offers an alternate name display as a “no, look, we’re sensitive to that!” safety catch, should a victim decide to get testy. But even here there is confusion: Shouldn’t the last name come first, as is custom in many Asian countries? And if not, does this mean Facebook users from Asia are simply expected to adhere to Western standards, even within their own online communities?
So, the Facebook platform is not culturally robust, and opts for standardization — fine. Even more worrying, though, is this: though you can use an “alternate name,” no matter how (more) accountable it may be, your identity still must be defined by your legal name. Multiple identities and faces must be collapsed. And though it may rein in the trolls when what you say online will echo in eternity, the policy also forces discourse to be public, and therefore monitored. The possibility for honest expression is muted, because some people have every right to be scared that the cost of what they say — if it angers the right people — might be too high. (Though, to be fair, some just don’t realize this yet. And that is refreshing.)
The company’s official stance “has been developed by our own research and in consultation with a number of safety and child protection experts,” noted Debbie Frost, Facebook’s communications director, in an e-mail to the AP. Granted, the real name policy may help secure the site against potential criminals — a problem social networking burnout MySpace never saw the end of.
But it may exacerbate the problem in other situations. To use your real name means to expose yourself, and that in itself can compromise your safety. Take the case of Mark Zuckerberg himself, who recently took out a restraining order against crazed fan Pradeep Manukonda after he (Manukonda) sent the troubling message, “I am ready to die for you.”
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The privacy problem becomes particularly salient — and even dangerous — once activists enter the picture. ”For my fellow Chinese, this [Facebook] policy could easily help Chinese police identify them,” Anti has said. Democracy activists in Egypt expressed a similar fear as they built support and organized protests on the web site. Some feared that the mysterious creator of the We Are All Khaled Said page — later revealed to be Google executive Wael Ghonim – would be outed. Facebook ultimately remained silent on the issue, and company officials have remained tight-lipped about their decision to do so.
So why the sudden turn-around with Anti? Would Zuckerberg’s business jaunt to China, where Facebook is banned, have something to do with this? Possibly, now that the idea of a shot at China’s market is not so unlikely after all. China is one of the last major bastions holding out against Facebook’s ubiquitous web presence. (Japanese women, as well, apparently.) It has been suggested that this is Facebook, gifting China with an olive branch. I don’t find that theory entirely off-base. And even if that wasn’t the intention, that may very well be how China receives the gesture. The suggestion is that Facebook is not a platform conducive to activism and social change. Or, it can be — so long as you don’t mind the possibility of martyrdom.
And now, the funny comes full circle: Mark Zuckerberg‘s dog “Beast” has a Facebook page while Anti does not. This is acceptable under company policy since Beast’s page is not a personal profile, but listed as a fan page. Sadly, this may also be the only way forward for Anti and others like him. Promoting yourself as an abstract cause. Recognizing that rabble-rousers without names just can’t have friends. At least, friends that poke you.
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TAGS: Chinese democracy • Chinese Identity • Facebook in China • Mark Zuckerberg • Michael Anti • Privacy rights • Psuedonym
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