I’ve followed the long standing Facebook identity battles that both Alec Couros and Alan Levine have had to endure, and the abject failure on the part of Facebook to deal with fake account after fake account expropriating their identities to do all manner of nasty things. Today comes news that the mayor of Victoria, Lisa Helps, was locked out of her own Facebook account because….well, because Facebook doesn’t believe that a person in politics could actually have the last name of Helps.
While what has happened to Alec and Alan is serious and has caused a great deal of pain to people who have been duped and manipulated by one form of catfish con after another (to say nothing of the huge amount of effort both Alec and Alan have expended fighting Facebook), it is another level of icky when Facebook starts messing with the identity of publicly elected officials.
Regardless of your political opinions of the mayor (and just for the record, I live in Saanich, a different municipality with a different mayor) it is clear that Helps considers Facebook an important tool to engage with her constituents on all manners of public policy. Which is how it should be. The internet should enable more direct interaction with our public officials.
But by locking her out of her own account, Facebook has essentially gagged a public official. In short, Facebook – a corporation that is no stranger to accusations that it manipulates political opinion and conducts ethically questionable research by manipulating what we see in Facebook – is messing with democracy.
Now, I don’t think that there is anything overtly political behind having the mayor’s account shut down by Facebook. I think this is a case of Facebook’s own algorithmic bumbling. But, intentional or not, there are socio-political implications to having a publicly elected official lose access to their own Facebook account. Imagine if this happened with just a few days left in a tight election campaign? Or during a crisis in the city where the mayor was trying to use Facebook as a way to communicate important information to the citizens of her community?
It would be dismissive to think that social media is trivial. That this is just Facebook and there are plenty of other avenues available to the mayor to communicate with constituents. Which is true. But the fact is that social media is driving much of the political discourse happening in North America. The recent Pew Research shows that most people get their news from social media, with 63% of respondents saying that they get their news directly from what they see in Facebook. Over 60% of us use Facebook and social media to engage in political discourse on social media. And Facebook, the company, has no qualms about adjusting our newsfeed to promote certain behaviours during an election.
Social media has become a vitally important mechanism in our political process and, by extension, our society.
I am becoming convinced that it is dangerous for us to leave something as crucial as our identity up to an unaccountable, corporate social media company. Facebook is messing up too bad and the stakes are just too high in a democratic society.
I think our civic institutions need to be playing a bigger role in digital identity. Our governments need to be doing more to help its citizens verify that who we are online is legit. It’s a role our government has always had a hand in, through the issuing of government identification documents like passports, health cards, and drivers licenses. It’s time for them to step up and provide some kind of mechanism that can help their citizens verify that they are who they are online.
I also think that we need some regulations on social media with regards to digital identity issues. When the mayor of a city – and that cities police force – are unable to convince Facebook that the mayor is who she says she is….that is a serious problem. Our digital identities are too important to be left to customer support who refuse to return messages and fix problems quickly. It begins to look like censorship – tacit or otherwise – when the mayor is cut off for 9 days, and gets NO response from the company that cut her off. With identity, Facebook is failing and it is time for our public officials to step in and ensure that there are effective and efficient identity dispute mechanisms in place that keep people from being locked out of their own accounts for days and weeks on end. And with Facebook single sign on accounting for over 60% of login credentials at third-party sites, getting the boot on Facebook likely means getting the boot of a whole host of other sites and services across the web that you use.
I am also becoming convinced that our governments need to be more proactive in providing citizens alternative public virtual spaces for citizens to engage. While it is great that civic engagement happens on Twitter and Facebook and other virtual spaces, it is still at the whim and control of that social media company. Just like our communities have real public spaces like libraries, schools, recreation centres and other physical municipal institutions, we should also be pushing for more of these virtual public spaces provided by our civic institutions. Places where a mayor can virtually interact with a wide network of constituents that isn’t controlled by a corporation driven by their own best interests who seem to have little regard for the damage they are doing to our lives and communities.