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A Warning to Facebook Users

Yesterday, Julie Zhou, a product design manager at Facebook, wrote a proposal in the NYTimes titled, Online, Anonymity Breeds Contempt.  This is the latest salvo in the Civility Wars meme that has been floating around the internet but this one has more severe consequences for free speech than any proposition passed by the righteous Christian voters of Oklahoma.

Zhou’s premise is that the online world is populated by trolls, which almost seems like an idea for a fantasy series world.  We all know what trolling is, although Zhou’s definition, “defined as the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums”, is rather broad.  Trolls come in many flavors.  Some of them definitely have an agenda and use carefully crafted tools of the marketing trade to manipulate readers, all of this without raising the voice.  Yes, trolls are nasty and unpleasant and sometimes downright creepy.  That’s what spam filters and septic tanks are for.

They are also anonymous.  Zhou has a problem with anonymity.  In Zhou’s world, anonymity is the scourge that must be eliminated so that we can all speak openly and harmoniously, where users can get a friction free experience and share their Farmville produce with each other.  All very *nice* and completely soporific.  But Zhou’s explanation of the perils of anonymity had my tinfoil antenna twitching:

Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

Many forums and online communities are looking for ways to strike back. Back in February, Engadget, a popular technology review blog, shut down its commenting systemfor a few days after it received a barrage of trollish comments on its iPad coverage.

Many victims are turning to legislation. All 50 states now have stalking, bullying or harassment laws that explicitly include electronic forms of communication. Last year, Liskula Cohen, a former model, persuaded a New York judge to require Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who she felt had defamed her, and she has now filed a suit against the blogger. Last month, another former model, Carla Franklin, persuaded a judge to force YouTube to reveal the identity of a troll who made a disparaging comment about her on the video-sharing site.

But the law by itself cannot do enough to disarm the Internet’s trolls. Content providers, social networking platforms and community sites must also do their part by rethinking the systems they have in place for user commentary so as to discourage — or disallow — anonymity. Reuters, for example, announced that it would start to block anonymous comments and require users to register with their names and e-mail addresses in an effort to curb “uncivil behavior.”

Some may argue that denying Internet users the ability to post anonymously is a breach of their privacy and freedom of expression. But until the age of the Internet, anonymity was a rare thing. When someone spoke in public, his audience would naturally be able to see who was talking.

Others point out that there’s no way to truly rid the Internet of anonymity. After all, names and e-mail addresses can be faked. And in any case many commenters write things that are rude or inflammatory under their real names.

I have a problem with the idea that anonymity on the internet should be denied to the casual user in a thread or that anonymity is a scourge on the internet, a necessary EEEEVVVVIL.  I suspect that few commenters who post to blogs or pages on sensitive subjects such as politics, religion, homosexuality or just sex in general, would feel that anonymity is a problem that needs a solution.  Without anonymity, many online personalities would stay trapped in their heads, unable to find an outlet to express their opinions, dissent or eccentricities.

And then there is the issue of what constitutes trolling.  One person’s harrassment may be another person’s vigorous attempts at debate.  Long time readers of The Confluence will recall that this blog was created as a result of being kicked off of DailyKos in the early stages of the primary wars of 2008.  The peaceful and genteel, law abiding citizens of DailyKos ran me out of town on a rail because I had the temerity to question their consensus reality about Barack Obama and challenged them to look at their behavior as moblike, forcing Kossacks to convert to Obama or die.  (See Obamaphiles carry out Jihad on DailyKos)

Zhou’s recommendations for *fixing* the troll problem are remarkably (uncannily?) similar to the DailyKos model.  She would have ‘trusted users’ among other tools:

The technology blog Gizmodo is trying an audition system for new commenters, under which their first few comments would be approved by a moderator or a trusted commenter to ensure quality before anybody else could see them. After a successful audition, commenters can freely post. If over time they impress other trusted commenters with their contributions, they’d be promoted to trusted commenters, too, and their comments would henceforth be featured.

Disqus, a comments platform for bloggers, has experimented with allowing users to rate one another’s comments and feed those ratings into a global reputation system called Clout. Moderators can use a commenter’s Clout score to “help separate top commenters from trolls.”

At Facebook, where I’ve worked on the design of the public commenting widget, the approach is to try to replicate real-world social norms by emphasizing the human qualities of conversation. People’s faces, real names and brief biographies (“John Doe from Lexington”) are placed next to their public comments, to establish a baseline of responsibility.

Facebook also encourages you to share your comments with your friends. Though you’re free to opt out, the knowledge that what you say may be seen by the people you know is a big deterrent to trollish behavior.

This kind of social pressure works because, at the end of the day, most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet.

I have to give her credit for admitting that social pressure is the goal because that is exactly what happened at DailyKos.  But in this case, the trolls gained “clout” through recommendations from other users, some of whom may have been brother trolls-in-arms.  After a certain amount of clout, those trolls became trusted users with the minor but utlimately significant power to upgrade or degrade another user’s clout.  This became a very effective method of social control, one that David Axelrod was going to use for all it was worth.  And he undoubtably did.

The result was a takeover of DailyKos through a very effective troll campaign.  Here’s how it worked and how it will work on Facebook:

1.) A user writes a conversion diary or page.  It has quasi religious overtones.

2.) The conversion diary is hit with massive mojo or “clout”.  The diary moves up the recommended or “like” list.  Those of us who were frequent DailyKos users couldn’t help but notice that the same people immediately recommended these diaries.

3.) Social pressure is used to reinforce consensus reality by rewarding the desired expression and by punishing undesirable expressions. The term used for this when referring to cultlike behavior is “love bombing“.  The good user is praised, told how smart and attractive he/she is and how different they are from the rest of the world. The undesired users become targets for a campaign of decremation of their trusted user status.  Yes, friends, I was a trusted user on DailyKos up until the day I wrote my last post.

4.) Bait Ball frenzies result where gangs of now motivated users decry the dissenters lack of civility, driving the user and entire modes of thought out of the public domain.

If this is the way Facebook is trending, and I see it in their ubiquitous “like” buttons, I don’t want any part of it.  Zhou’s piece reads like an attempt to exert social control.  But I don’t know whether Facebook will cooperate with the people who want to shape consensus reality.  To the Facebook user, these entities may remain ‘anonymous’.  But their force may be deployed throughout Facebook’s domain and that is where there is real danger.  Because for many people, especially older or less technologically savvy users, Facebook is the entry point and the internet space where they spend most of their time.  If they are exposed to the sophisticated marketing techniques that we saw in the 2008 election season, they may be unaware of how their views and opinions are being shaped and reinforced, all in the name of civility.

I don’t need Zhou to tell me how utterly obnoxious trolls are.  They can be particularly hard on women who are conditioned to take insults personally.  To female bloggers I have always emphasized that trolls are nothing more than black pixels on your monitor- they can not hurt you.  As a blogger, you have time to formulate a snappy response to bring them to their trollish knees.  But we have other tools to be used judiciously.  We can filter comments automatically using trigger words, throw people into moderation or the spam filter and moderate threads to keep people from harrassing other users.  But harrassment is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder.  The concept of bullying can itself be used to bully people into silence.  I don’t want any part of that.

I want the internet to be free to users whether they choose to remain anonymous.  I have found that anonymous users are no more trollish than the identifiable user.  It is through anonymity that unconventional but good ideas enter the public debate.  Anonymity gives users the freedom to express themselves without exposure to real world friends and families and without social pressure to keep their fcuking mouths shut.

(Hey! Leo Laporte!  this would be a great topic for This Week In Tech.)

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97 Responses

  1. Glad I am not on facebook.

    Zhou is naive or privileged or both. Anonymity is precisely what gives dissidents in China & Iran and other repressive regimes the power to speak out; that’s why they keep trying to crack down on the internet.

    • She’s not naive. She knows exactly what she’s doing.

      • hah! Facebook itself has always had my spidey sense tingling. I just don’t trust it.

        • me either.

          • Me three. I made the mistake of registering on Facebook a few years back, then changed my mind and tried to UNregister–only to get a message telling me that if I did, I could nevah EVAH change my mind and re-register on Facebook in the future.

            I thought “So f**king what?” and de-registered anyway–or tried to. Turns out Facebook, like the Hotel California, is a place where you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

            Fug ’em.

          • Yup, and they keep all your contact info.

          • Me four. Never used it, and I never will.

      • Indeedy. She may be appealing to ideas about civilized behavior, but FB’s entire business model depends on the lack of anonymity on FB. They can’t sell your personal info, your social connection info, your interests or anything else to marketers and companies (or the FBI) to anyone if you’re anonymous. It’s the only way they make money. FB owners don’t give jack about whether you can network with your friends online or not; they just want your info and the entire application is just a tool to get you to give all that to them voluntarily. They sell access and they can’t do that if you’re anonymous.

        • THIS.

        • Exactamundo. They can only exist in a non-anonymous universe.

          If you want to wipe them out, provide an anonymous, private alternative. Of course the business model would be different. It would probably be a simpler advertising model based on a wider public without user specifics. But it would still be a viable business. Hint to all the entrepreneurs out there.

          • Shhh, it’s a secret.

          • I hear Diaspora is struggling out of the gate. Haven’t checked them out yet. Hard to compete when Facebook already has 500 million interconnected users. That’s the other Facebook business advantage, insidious as it may be When you have a huge critical mass of users already connected with each other, it’s hard for any single user to move elsewhere without losing their community.

      • She’s absolutely right though. Just think of the scandalous ideas advanced by those anonymous pamphleteers Paine and Franklin! Shameful and uncivil in the extreme!

    • I love Facebook. It’s only as lousy as you make it. My page is available strictly to close friends and relatives and we all share photos of our kids and grandkids and vacations and funny stories.

      • Correction: Your page is available to close family, friends, Facebook and anyone Facebook wants to share your information with, advertiser, etc.

      • The idea behind facebook is quite nice. You get to keep up with friends and share what you’re doing, and re-connect with friends. And that’s why it works and is popular.

        The problem is when people get on the expand and collect as many “friends” as possible train and add acquaintances, friends of friends, and then finally complete strangers. Then it becomes more like a blog. Which in and of itself is fine. But then you’re sharing personal stuff in a blog.

        Perhaps the solution to that is to have two. One that’s just for real friends and family, and one that’s the face to the outside blog type thing.

        But as mentioned, it’s a commercial enterprise so advertisers are in on the game, and once you “accept” applications, other companies have full access to everything.

        • Dunno. I don’t really have issues so far with all that on Facebook. I opt out of everything commercial, and I make all my comments and posts assuming I’m in public. If they’ve sold me something without my knowledge, then I’m not aware. 🙂

      • Another difficulty is of course the tangled mess that is the privacy settings. It’s pretty tricky to get those they way you want them.

        All OT from the original topic of the DK type social effects that are insidious.

  2. Wow! I noticed that headline this morning – I had no idea that it came from a Facebook manager.
    During the height of the PUMA days, Facebook deleted 2 of my accounts without any explanation.
    The first time was barely used – I simply complained about their deleting Will Bower’s account.
    The second was nothing but my blog entries.
    I guess both actions qualified me as a troll in their book.

    • I forgot about that, NO HILLARY SUPPORTERS WELCOMED ON FACEBOOK!

      Mine was never deleted, but I closed mine, and my regular one too.

      • The Confluence has a page on Facebook.

        • That’s different, though. I myself might cave and establish a Facebook page if I were a public entity like a blog, or a business, or if I had a “product”–like maybe a book–to flog.

          • Yup. Gotta go where the customers are. 😦

          • The other thing though is that all the politicos are on facebook. I have a couple of liberal Congress persons who are very active. And the journalists are all over facebook.

  3. Funny but this censorship never came up when they had the Hit FaceBook page on Hillary. Maybe EdgeofForever has a screen shot of the FaceBook page and how it had members in the thousands (under five though) that were advocating it, and not even the government did anything.

    • Unfortunately, I didn’t have the foresight to do a screenshot, but this is my comment
      http://edgeoforever.wordpress.com/2009/02/21/58-kill-hillary-groups-on-facebook/
      The link to the querry is dead now.
      I think they cleaned up since – I could only find the ones demanding her to drop out this time..
      Note the date of my entry: as of the end of February 2009 those groups were still there.

      • Yes, that was my point, that even after the election they were still talking about doing Hillary in and NO Donna Brazile, Howard Dean, Axlerod, Nancy Pelosi or Barrack Obama ever spoke up to say it was WRONG to Advocate harm to her.

        Sheesh, we were even shocked that the Secret Service didn’t contact FaceBook as they were not doing Freedom of Speech but rather chatting about how to do her in. Much to our horror I might ad as we would check and report back to each other on these forums, but it was most disturbing to us and more so that no public figure spoke up about it.

        Later the number even increased to about 3 or 4 FaceBook pages just about doing harm to Hillary. I tell ya, those were weird times and most sad times too.

      • Gosh, just picked my self up off the floor… 58 FaceBook pages advocating harm to our Hillary…America’s most regarded Advocate of Human Rights internationally I might add! I just checked on the ones that were busy seeming to be plotting and planning, not just chit chatting about her ‘femaleness’…yup, they were beyond rude.

  4. @Land of Lincoln
    Unless THEY want you too.

    • NYS: You got that right.

      Truth be told, all these “social networking” sites give me hives. They’re so…high school know what I mean? and that’s at their most benign. It didn’t surprise me when it was revealed Facebook had CIA origins/connections.

      • Sheryl Sandberg is Facebook’s number two and really runs the place. She was in Bill’s admin I think and she supported Hillary.

  5. People are so hooked and reliant on Facebook that most will keep right on using it no matter what evils are revealed.

    The young adults in my family have blithely dismissed my warnings to better protect their privacy on Facebook.
    They can’t imagine life without it.
    It’ll be great fun trying to convince them they’ve become mere social engineering tools.

    A scary and slippery slope.
    Thanks for the heads up.

  6. I’m not sure I want civility. This is America, we have a long tradition of having bad manners. In the olden days, congresscreeps used to beat each other with canes and launch accusations about fornicating with animals. What can I say, it’s messy living in a free country. Democracy is hard work.

    The alternative is that we all dress in uniforms, march in lockstep, and watch what we say.

    Naturally if we get rid of anonymity, it is women who will pay the price and become even more vulnerable. I’ve had numerous violent threats posted to me, like I really want psycho people to know my name and where I live.

  7. Some may argue that denying Internet users the ability to post anonymously is a breach of their privacy and freedom of expression. But until the age of the Internet, anonymity was a rare thing. When someone spoke in public, his audience would naturally be able to see who was talking.

    With many here we learned the HARD WAY about speaking up and supporting Hillary…it was painful and brought hate/personal attacks with it. RD, I can tell you via e-mail what was done to me if you need to know. I have met you and others in person so NO TROLL.

    Others point out that there’s no way to truly rid the Internet of anonymity. After all, names and e-mail addresses can be faked. And in any case many commenters write things that are rude or inflammatory under their real names.

    Most people are traceable via IPs and e-mails. On one site, we did get one person that initially signed in and then all his information disappeared??? The only way that could have been done was to be within the main site admin operations with the keys… Till this day, albeit he was nice to us and friendly we don’t know if he was in China/Middle East/Europe (those IPs we saw, but they too disappear, but oddly enough he left all his comments up 😯 ), and/or was an intelligence person!

    • Also, Facebook is about to eat gmail (and the rest) by offering their own mail service. real names will of course be the results.

      • EAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAK, running to close my gmail acount!

        • I think NotYourSweetie meant that if/when Facebook launches their email app, gmail is going to lose.
          Then facebook’s email app will, of course, know your real name, where you live, what you ate for breakfast, etc.

      • Not that the head of google is so big on Internet Privacy either, btw.

        • And even if he were, they’ve been hacked by the Chinese so many times that there are a probably a billion people with copies of all your emails. 😉

        • Non privacy is Google’s business model. On Facebook, at least I choose to be public. They both track you as best they can for commercial value. So does Amazon and eBay and pretty much anyone commercial you hang out with on the internet.

  8. OT via a comment at hillaryis44
    The other Clinton weighs in on wikileaks

    “I’ll be very surprised if some people don’t lose their lives,” (Bill) Clinton said in a speech in North Carolina. “And goodness knows how many will lose their careers.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/30/AR2010113007299.html

    • It’s all about the rents, as usual.

      If these guys get your real identity, they can sell you out to marketers, and make a lot more money than they’re making now, off not only you, but your friends and neighbors. That’s what the “social graph,” the data structure that drives Facebook today, would permit, given better input in the form of real identities, hence location, hence demographic data, and on and on and on.

      Sure, the government would like that too, but that’s just bonus points.

      So Zhou is stupid on the trolling argument, but Facebook, as the corporate person for which she is shilling, is very smart.

      • In the digital age, to know you is to own you.

      • Is ‘rent’ defined as any business or revenue or job in the private sector. I am never clear what that actually means.

      • So Zhou is shilling for Facebook. Maybe, but where’s the evidence to back your theory. You’re doing that thing you accused me of yesterday. 🙂

  9. Anyone who saw The Social Network knows the FaceBook makers are the typical Kossacks: misogynists, immature with a chip on their shoulder.
    For all the protests about the movie – I had occasion to verify: most of the lines were based on blog entries and transcripts of depositions.
    Especially the one where Zuckenberg says “They gave me all their information -because they are idiots”. Still looking for that link – those blog entries have been posted somewhere.

  10. The above wasn’t meant to respond to Votermom, and this is.

    Much as I like Bill Clinton, he’s wrong on this one:

    No evidence for loss of life. Morever, IIRC, if that was an issue, the Wikileaks people offered the documents to the Pentagon for review. If loss of life were the main concern, the Pentagon would have reviewed them. It wasn’t, and the empire is.

    A lot of Iraqis and Afghanis have lose their careers and their lives too. If transparency and accountability will prevent more wars like that, doesn’t that net out positive?

    • lambert, your commenti un-nesting is spreading anarchy!

      On your response though– I am wary of “net positives’ if we are talking about human lives. It rapidly spins into “let us sacrifice this one cute little 3yo child to save millions of lives” scenario.

      I am hoping that Big Dawg is wrong and that no people will actually get rubbed out because of the documents dump.

    • Say, did you ever approve my account or at least let me know so I won’t forget and try it again… gettin’ older… 😉

    • One thing I agree on with Bill about the leaks: no good things will come out of it.
      The people, who were meant to read all this for their enlightenment will not take the time to actually read the gianormous archive.
      It will be digested for them by the same pundits – with the same agendas – that were perpetrating the previous lies. Some bad guys will get some weapons against their enemies, but nobody will be held accountable for anything. I mean W bragged in his own book about torture – I don’t see him in handcuffs.

    • It looks to me like a lot of the latest Wikileaks material seems intended to lay the groundwork for “action” against Iran. According to it, Israel and the entire Arab world are united in wishing that “someone” would launch a preemptive strike against Iran – or at least foment a coup. It all looks a little too pat to me – as if the latest leak were a false flag operation. And what better way to add to its credibility than for current and former government officials to decry it?

  11. I post on Lancaster on Line, you have to register but you can post under a pseudonym. It got so bad at one point Lancaster Newspapers took the site down over derogatory or insensitive comments made about the victim of a traffic accident.

    Trusted User is another phrase for too cheap to monitor your own site’s comment section.

    OT What will the TSA inspectors do when the terrorists start using suppository bombs?

  12. Big Dawg said that? Damn…

    Mind you, I haven’t read any of it, but from what I’ve read OF it , this particular batch seems to be mostly fodder for the gossip pages rather than revelatory of any truly earthshaking state secrets.

    Most revealing–to me anyway–is that the Righties are already howling for blood, most especially HRC’s. Maybe that’s what Bill meant…

    • Do you think what either of the Clinton’s have said publicly about the leaks was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Or, is it possible they were sent out there to make the public think this was a horrible act against the gov’t rather than an orchestrated event with a specific goal in sight BY the gov’t?

      I adore both Clintons, but they are politicians first. “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem” applies here.

    • Much more likely it’s what you meant, not what he meant. In my opinion. 🙂

  13. Didn’t Joe Cannon post warninings about facebook or one of those other networking sites being a tool of the CIA?

  14. Quite frankly, it’s not always the “trolls” who are the problem IMO. People just don’t understand basic courtesy anymore. There is a huge difference in a smarta** response and one that is in your face inappropriate. I try to maintain a reasonable tone, but I’ve been guilty of losing it a time or two…especially in 2007. When people can’t discuss the points of view or the issue and go off on their personal rants, it gets touchy. Next thing you know you’re being called names or just generally shut down with the put downs. Anymore, I just try to walk away. It’s discouraging…I’ve lost respect for people in general and some specifically. And as a result, I really don’t comment as much anymore. What matters to me, is my own personal sense of integrity. Am I proud of my conduct, my words? I can always be better at the way I present my POV…as long as I don’t get ugly or make it personal, I’m ok with it.

    This is the current train of thought these days…if there is a problem, find a way to regulate it or restrict it or censor it. How about parents just try to be decent people, teach their kids and lead by example? Too simplistic an approach, I suppose.

    • And, there are also many times when it is the reader who changes the tone and meaning of another person’s comment. TL is famous for having multiple mind-readers in the comment section. 🙂

    • I keep thinking that a *public* forum like Gawker with its general juvenile behavior and its fairly prevalent sexism would not have been possible during the years I was in college. Our public behavior has become more course, especially in the last decade imo…or I could just be getting older. 🙂

  15. Found the quote on what Zuckenberg thinks of us

    ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
    ZUCK: just ask
    ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
    FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?
    ZUCK: people just submitted it
    ZUCK: i don’t know why
    ZUCK: they “trust me”
    ZUCK: dumb fucks

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/09/20/100920fa_fact_vargas#ixzz16sGT7jd7

  16. With a subtle bit of irony, I hit like on this post. 🙂

    • I live the irony because I use a pseudonym on Facebook. What if we all used REAL names, but they were all pseudonyms?

    • As usual, I didn’t have time to edit today. I wish I could turn out brilliant essays, grammatically correct and typo free, in 20 minutes like I used to. It just ain’t happenin’.
      Oh, and I don’t like “like”.
      But what can you do? It’s not easy to be unpopular.

  17. ” One person’s harrassment may be another person’s vigorous attempts at debate. Long time readers of The Confluence will recall that this blog was created as a result of being kicked off of DailyKos in the early stages of the primary wars of 2008. The peaceful and genteel, law abiding citizens of DailyKos ran me out of town on a rail because I had the temerity to question their consensus reality about Barack Obama and challenged them to look at their behavior as moblike, forcing Kossacks to convert to Obama or die.”

    [Clearing throat]

    Pot. Meet Kettle. You are both black.

    This is obvious, but the censorship of the comments in this blog is light years beyond anything you may have experienced at Kos.

    Suggestion: The solution to anger about censorship is not to create an environment wherein you create even more oppresive censorship.

    No one will see this, of course, because you are doing exactly what Kos did.

    But somehow it is OK when you do it because [insert the same excuses you heard from Kos].

    Just saying. Off to the Kos Filte . . . I mean Confluence filter now . . .

    • You’re not being censored. If you want to pop off stupid opinions, get your own blog.
      This post is about social engineering and consensus reality.
      And yes, we reserve the right to moderate our threads. But this is one asteroid in the Oort belt of the blogosphere. It’s not facebook.
      Big difference.
      It might help if you actually read the post first.

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