About ten years ago, the real name policy imposed by social networks such as Facebook or the now deceased Google+ sparked a controversy, especially in the United States, where many actors, and in particular LGBT and Native Americans communities denounced this policy. Such policies hinder the freedom of speech of many actors, including for example those residing in authoritarian or totalitarian countries. And among them, doctors, including for example those who want to warn the public about an emerging epidemic.
In 2011, Randi Zuckerberg, sister of the founder of Facebook, wanted an end to online anonymity (not only on Facebook but everywhere on the Internet) on the basis that it encouraged cyberbullying. This point of view ignores that anonymity or pseudonymity is necessary and legitimate to prevent restrictions on the freedom of expression of minorities or to prevent harassment or physical violence in real life. That amounts to say that Facebook's real name policy fosters these behaviors.
As early as 2012, the pretext of preventing online harassment put forward by Google and Facebook was denounced: prohibiting anonymity does not eliminate cyberbullying, and, on the other hand, Google and Facebook are described as making substantial profits from this policy.
On December 27, 2019, a laboratory informed the Wuhan hospital of the appearance of a new coronavirus. On December 30, doctors Ai Fen and Li Wenliang discuss the situation on private networks. Afterward, Ai Fen is summoned and reprimanded by his management for "spreading a rumor and undermining stability" and Li Wenliang, alongside seven of his colleagues, is arrested and threatened by police for warning friends on social media about the existence of a health threat.
While there is a lot to say about the censorship operated by the Chinese authorities, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, and about the inevitable impact that this will have on its spread, the key point is that no doctor in authoritarian countries will take the risk of warning about the existence of a pandemic threat on social networks if, like Facebook, these social networks force him to use his real name. The result of real name policies is that these doctors have the choice between going to prison or hiding the existence of an emerging epidemic.
Regarding freedom of speech, even if the Chinese government has filtered Western social networks since 2009, in any case, the real name policy enforced by Facebook could only provoke the self-censorship of its users in China. Incidentally, many observers consider the proposition to get access to Facebook via tor to be paradoxical: What is the logic of anonymously accessing a social network enforcing a real name policy?
Ten years later and after more than two million deaths from the covid-19 pandemic, no one can any longer view the efforts to create a right to pseudonymity as a rearguard fight.
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- The Switchboard: Facebook’s real name policy cause clashes with some gay and transgender users
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