Who’s really who on Facebook?

Using Facebook on a smartphone Image copyright Getty Images

We all know what a wonderful aid the internet can be to communication and debate. Sadly, we are becoming aware of how often spiteful anonymous comments can poison the well of web conversations. But now there's something of a fightback - and the social networks where many of these conversations happen will be under growing pressure to do more to protect vulnerable users.

On Monday's Today programme, Nicola Brooke described in moving detail how she had been bullied on Facebook - and had fought back by getting a court order forcing the social network to identify the anonymous people who had mounted a vicious campaign of abuse.

What struck me was that Facebook and other social networks had once appeared to offer the promise of a more civilised online communication precisely because they were places where people were who they said they were.

Unlike web forums where bilious commenters express themselves in ways they would never dream of doing without the shield of anonymity, social networks like Facebook and Twitter should be more polite because you have to be who you say you are.

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Media captionNicola Brookes: I'm not going to stop until these people are found and exposed

But that no longer appears to be the case. Facebook now has 900 million active users but it seems quite a large proportion of them are not "real" people. (In its IPO document, the company says false or duplicate accounts probably make up 5-6% of its users, although it admits that this is a very rough estimate and may not be accurate.)

When you sign up to join the social network, you are taken to a "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities" which includes this: "Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way."

It goes on to say that you must:

  • be over 13
  • not create more than one personal account
  • and not be a convicted sex offender.

But what is clear is that all of these rules - which appear essential to maintaining the network's reputation as a safe and civilised place - are being flouted with regularity. Anyone who has children will know the pressure to allow them to join Facebook before they are 13 - "everybody on school is on it already!"

And a good number of adults are setting up accounts for newborn babies - and are inevitably being less than frank about their own dates of birth.

So what is Facebook doing about this? The company says it does not actively police its users to make sure they are not breaking the rules - that would be impossible given the scale of the network - but relies on others reporting abuse. On each user's timeline you are able to go to a reporting screen where you can either block them or report that "This timeline is pretending to be someone or is fake."

When the network receives complaints, it says it is reasonably evident when an account is breaking the rules on anonymity. Obvious clues include a user who has started several accounts using the same email address, or who has had lots of friend requests rejected.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Would you say aloud what you just typed?

But Facebook won't reveal how many accounts it has suspended over the past year, so it is difficult to know exactly how well the system is working. Perhaps we all need to be more active in reporting abuse on networks like this. And maybe networks like Facebook need to be more active in policing their own rules.

But here's another thought.

Unless you're living in an oppressive state, or have reason to fear for your own safety if your identity is revealed, is there any real justification in hiding behind a false name online?

In all sorts of online communities - from YouTube to political blogs to technology forums - you can find angry people saying outrageous things. Wouldn't it be healthier if we all started ignoring those who aren't prepared to say what they think in their own names?