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Michael Anti's exile from Facebook over 'real-name policy'

Michael Anti's anger with Facebook grew when he heard that the company hosts a page for the dog of founder Mark Zuckerberg, seen here. (Reuters)

The Chinese journalist Michael Anti had his Facebook account deleted in January. The reason Facebook gave was that Michael Anti isn't his real, government-recorded, name--which is true. Instead, Anti is the name that he has written under for almost a decade, on his own personal blogs, and in his writing for the New York Times and other publications. It's the name on his Harvard fellowship documents. It's what his public knows him as. It's what you would search for if you were looking for his writing, or aiming to get in touch.

Facebook's "real name policy" will not accept such a pseudonym as the primary name on his account, and Anti was unwilling to change his account to reflect his birth name. That led to the removal, not only of his account, but his links with a thousand or so contacts he had made on the service since 2007.

Facebook's real name policy is long-established, and strongly defended by the company. But its ramifications are subtle, and end up a long way from what Facebook claims when it says it leads to a safer online environment. When dealing with the pseudonymity and celebrity of journalists working in dangerous conditions, it can lead to the quite the opposite.

Anti's anger with Facebook grew when he heard that the company now had a page for founder Mark Zuckerberg's new dog, Beast. As Anti told The Associated Press: "My journalistic work and academic work is more real than a dog."

Like many commercial Internet giants, as Facebook has grown, it has taken on many more functions: some deliberately, and some as a result of its users adapting its features for their own needs. It has moved from a simple tool for college students, to a 600-million-strong forum for sharing personal and public news. Games and private messaging have become as vital parts of Facebook's economy as sharing personal details. Facebook groups like the million-strong ElShaheeed have become the struts behind revolutions. News items are published, read, and shared on Facebook just as they are on the open Web and e-mail.

Facebook's attempts to reflect these new uses have led to some subtle and byzantine rules and structures, often haphazardly enforced. Everyone is required to use their real name: but Anti used his account for three years, before anyone at Facebook challenged him. Zuckerberg's dog gets a free ride on the service without a "real name" because Facebook has declared him a "public figure." Zuckerberg's dog, like other "public figures," has a page that looks like a normal account page, but he doesn't have friends (you can "like" him instead). Such pages also can not send or receive Facebook messages.

That's okay for a dog--or a politician or a celebrity wishing to maintain a one-way connection with Facebook fans. But if you're a journalist working in a regime that is cracking down on press freedom, much of the point of maintaining a presence on social networks is to stay in close and constant touch with your readers, your sources and fellow writers. There's both a journalistic and a safety function to such connections. As Anti himself compellingly argued in a New York Times editorial about social media, news spread through even weak ties like Facebook contacts is vital for keeping the flow of news alive. Facebook posts act as on-the-ground news reports. Private messaging can allow sources to stay in touch--and enable warnings to be spread.

Such activity is happening right now in China. In the current clampdown on media coverage of the Egypt-related protests on the mainland, journalists and their sources are exchanging a flurry of warnings of places not to go, reports of colleagues who have been threatened as well as a vital exchange of story leads and eyewitness reports.

Perhaps, though, Facebook is simply not the best vehicle for such discussions? As a technologist, that would certainly be the advice I would give. Despite recent improvements, CPJ has had too many reports of direct interception and malicious information gathering via Facebook to recommend it as a truly secure medium.

But, practically, when the site has 600 million users, and heavily encourages those users to use its internal messaging system, avoiding Facebook is almost impossible when gathering and reporting news, even in China where the service is blocked.

For many Net users, Facebook has become the preferred and sometimes the only way to stay in contact. You can only reach out to these users if you stay a member of Facebook. If you leave or have your account deleted, Facebook will not provide you with any way to remain in contact with those you communicated with. Delete an e-mail account, and you can take away your e-mail address book. Throw away your phone, and you get to keep your friend's phone numbers. If you leave or are thrown off Facebook, as Anti was, you will lose all contact with anyone who chose to reach out to you on that medium. Facebook refuseniks have to deal with the reality that leaving Facebook not only isolates you, but isolates those of your audience who use Facebook as their primary communication: a minor irritation in some countries, but genuinely dangerous in others.

They may not even know you've gone. Anti the journalist may no longer have an account on Facebook. But Anti the "public figure" certainly does--in both English and Chinese.

Facebook, as is its right, scraped the information for both of those pages from public information on Wikipedia. The real Anti has no control over them.

Like Zuckerberg's dog, you can't message these Antis, or make friends with them. You can "like" them, though. Note, though, that Facebook recently changed what happens when you click on the "like" button. These days, it will automatically post a headline, blurb, and thumbnail to your profile.

Again, that's hardly a big change if all you are doing is liking a dog on the Internet. But "liking" Anti or other challenging journalists so publicly in China may not be a wise act under the current conditions.

It's the sort of subtle ramification of Facebook technology changes a tech-savvy local reporter like Anti might choose to inform and warn his readers about, especially on his own page. But the "real" Anti can't do that. He isn't real enough for Facebook. Instead, only these silent placeholders remain.


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When I joined Facebook, I was forced to use a different name because the drones at Facebook didn't believe it was real. Every time I entered my name, a message would pop up: "Please enter valid name". This was thanks to their or their computer's inability to conceive of names other than Bobby-Joe or Betty-Sue and the like. Yet my name is perfectly common in Denmark. Friends with Indian or Indonesian names, who used initials or only had one name, had similar experiences. It was only after many months that FB finally allowed my name. Incidentally, I have seen many many people on FB who use outlandish names that are clearly not their own.

This is interesting, because I joined Facebook nearly 2 years ago with a fake name, and it's not even a real name. I change it every 2 months without problems! But maybe it's different in Germany...
Also, there are tons of people here in Germany who use names that don't make sense at all, "Lay Down" and stuff like this. And Facebook always approves!

It's a shame that they deleted his account simply because it's not his real name, since we really know him as Anti Michael...

Here you go again with another anti-corporate issue imported from the "progressive" Electronic Frontier Foundation and Harvard Berkman Center agenda instead of sticking to the basic issues of a liberal human rights organization, which should provide you with enough to keep busy.

The heart of freedom of the press -- a heart that EFF has of course spent years chipping away at for ideological reasons - is the private media corporation -- the right to freedom of association, and freedom of expression (the desire for anonymous accounts) does not trump that right.

EFF and friends have done their best to destroy both the private-property and the profit model of media by aggressively collectivizing content on the Internet and claiming "information wants to be free," but despite the great destruction of the news, book, music and other businesses and now even US foreign diplomacy with WikiLeaks, the principles still remain valid: freedom of expression does not trump freedom of association. You cannot use one right to undo another under the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You cannot *force* Amazon to store stolen classified government documents; you cannot *force* Facebook to accommodate the needs for anonymity of your opposition movement. You cannot tell corporations what to do based on your own whims. Yes, corporations are subject to law. Yes, corporations are vulnerable to pressure by civic groups invoking law.

But there isn't any international law or Constitutional principle that ensures the right to have a pseudonym. It's merely a social good that some find useful and therefore a function of freedom of expression -- which again, does not trump freedom of association.

Yes, we get it that corporations like Facebook that create platforms and communites for socializing are now huge and influential and even take the place of the "newspaper of record" or "the town hall" for many people. Long, long before EFF found it politically expedient, I criticized the overreach of Facebook on user-generated content copyright; its unconscionable TOS; its lack of due process; the California Ideology baked into its tools; the California Business Model involving looking the other way about hate speech and other TOS infringements while content is freely uploaded to help sell ads; the unfair promotion of its special friends into positions of power on a committee set up to feign "democratic" reforms a few years ago; the lack of privacy and many other things -- your focus on anonymity for the expedience of this or that movement you like is a selective focus on the problems of corporate management of society.

I've outlined on my blog the arguments against your notion of imposing anonymity on a public platform by a private corporation:

o it would involve a discretionary policy by a company already with too much discretionary power over the public discourse to create a special "activist account" and then be subject to pressures from privileged groups in society that could reach them with their notion of what is a "good" activist

o it discounts the use of the platform by activists already with their public identities precisely as a deterrent from harassment by regime sympathizers using anonymous accounts, and their use of maximum-privacy accounts and circles of friends for discussions among people whose identities they can see

o it contains an obvious contradiction about the claim that a fan page or public figure page is somehow more injurious to casual followers than friendhip links, because for a figure trying to get influence, a friendship is just as visible as a like and therefore if he leaves his friendship ties open, the secret police could find them as damaging to those followers.

o you are making a special pleading for a small group of users that would lead to injuries by the vast body of mainstream users who value identity and wish to avoid harassment by anonymous accounts

o you are in an NGO with no democratic representation subject only to your board and staff discretion trying to make policies that will affect the vast majority of customers without their ability to have a say

It's not Facebook's job to create a platform for your international cyber movement, Danny. If you want to create coercively open-sourced software platforms with a permissive anonymous environment, then go join Diaspora or work to create a "movement" platform that will accommodate all the radical agendas of various groups that find anonymity and lack of accountability valuable. This will include lots of indy media type of journalists who will find it useful. There is nothing to stop you from creating that utopia you seek. Just don't ask big business and the average mainstream customer to support you in that vision by sustaining the massive environment for your anonymous activists to purvey their message -- and then also sustain the massive abuse caused by tech thug movements like Anonymous. Freedom of the press does *not* mean creating an audience for you or anyone else. And what you do with your demand for FB to make anonymous accounts is demand that they turn their platform over to you or other groups for your goals. That's not acceptible in a large platform that increasingly in our time has to do double duty for the town hall and the town square that no longer exist in real life. No one expects to keep anonymity at a town hall; in fact, contrary to the edge cases you invoke, many, many human rights movements and independent journalists groups in repressive countries are predicated on the notion of identity and accountability despite the risks.

Hi Catherine,

You make some excellent arguments as to why Facebook should not be required to implement anonymity, many of which I agree with.

Just to be crystal clear, I too believe that Facebook should not be required to implement anonymity.



Nice to read your blog