Facebook has confirmed to TPM that for the past several months, it has been surveying users about their Friends’ usernames, asking if the usernames are “your friend’s real name” or not.
“This system has been in a few different incarnations over the past couple months,” a Facebook spokesperon confirmed to TPM in a statement. “It changes depending on what’s being asked.
TPM first encountered the new Facebook “real names” survey prompt after a screenshot was posted on Twitter on Thursday.
“Facebook wants to know if your friends’ names are real. Are you going to be the snitch?” tweeted an activist and photojournalist under the username “@chapeaudefee,” attaching the following screenshot to illustrate the survey prompt, which shows another user’s account name, profile photo and location and asks the recipient of the survey to indicate whether the person’s account is reflective of their real name or not.
The actual question posed by Facebook is phrased decidedly more delicately:
“Please help us understand how people are using Facebook,” it reads. “Your response is anonymous and won’t affect your friend’s account. Is this your friend’s real name?”
It then gives users four options: “Yes,” “No,” “I don’t know this person,” and “I don’t want to answer.”
Facebook declined to specify the size of the new survey, whether it was restricted to certain countries and if so, which ones, and how long it could proceed.
Facebook’s spokesperson also repeatedly sought to assure TPM that all surveys on the website are anonymized and that Facebook isn’t using the data it gathers from the surveys to take any specific action, aside from generally improving its understanding of users.
“This isn’t so we can go and get that person in trouble,” Facebook’s spokesperson told TPM. “None of our surveys are used for any enforcement action. Basically, what this model does is help better inform us in how to classify different types of accounts. Just because we’re showing a question about a particular user doesn’t mean we suspect them of anything. The user is chosen by a system.”
The answers that users provide help Facebook achieve a “better understanding of our ecosystem,” the company’s spokesperson said.
Still, the issue of fake Facebook usernames has been a contentious one for almost as long as the website has been around (launched in 2004).
Facebook’s own Terms of Service state that “Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way,” adding “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.”
The Facebook Terms of Service also state: “If you select a username or similar identifier for your account or Page, we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe it is appropriate (such as when a trademark owner complains about a username that does not closely relate to a user’s actual name).”
Facebook’s Help Center is even more strict, stating that “The name you use should be your real name as it would be listed on your credit card, student ID, etc.”
Despite this, Facebook itself has admitted its enforcement of this policy hasn’t stopped a sizeable portion of fake username accounts proliferating on the social network, up to 8.7 percent, which equates to 83.1 million out of 955 million users worldwide.
The problem is large enough that Facebook stated in Securities and Exchange Commission documentation that the company is “continually seeking to improve our ability to identify duplicate or false accounts and estimate the total number of such accounts, and such estimates may be affected by improvements or changes in our methodology.”
Stil, many Facebook users choose to use fake or alternate names other than their legal ones for a variety of reasons. The Verge recently spoke to some of these users, noting that one reason for choosing a fake name was out of an abundance of caution and desire for personal privacy, following reports of employers snooping on employee or perspective hire Facebook accounts, an issue which received mainstream media attention earlier this year and even provoked strong responses from legislators and Facebook itself, which seemed to threaten legal action to protect user data (though the company later backed away from this).
In general, Web users may prefer anonymity for reasons of personal safety. But Facebook is not alone in enforcing a real names policy: Google Plus provoked a backlash for employing a similar policy shortly after in launched in late June 2011, a response dubbed “Nym Wars” as in “pseudonym,” for the desire of some users to use pseudonyms. Google Plus has since backed away from this policy as well.