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"White Man's Gambit": yet another 'pundit' suggests a real names policy

Whose interests are served by this framing?

A guy sitting in a chair at his desk, with his head down on his computer, looking exhausted
Every few weeks or so, someone white dude suggests that the way to solve all of our online problems is to require users to submit ID verification and use their “real names,” ignoring years of research and commentary.

This is what I like to call the White Man’s Gambit.

– Jillian C. York, Everything Old is New Part 2: Why Online Anonymity Matters (2021)

Yeah really.  York's got a very solid list of references, including her own A Case for Pseudonyms on the EFF blog from 2011, J. Nathan Matias outstanding 2017 The Real Name Fallacy, Oliver L. Haimson and Anna Lauren Hoffmann Constructing and enforcing ‘authentic’ identity online: Facebook, real names, and non-normative identities from 2016, danah boyd's ‘Real Names’ Policies are an Abuse of Power from 2011,

This time the white dude making the suggestion was Scott Galloway,  an NYU marketing professor best known for doing the Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher.

Galloway does acknowledges that he's not the first white guy to suggest this:

Verifying online identity is not a new idea — it was actually the original plan.** For years, Facebook demanded its users go by their “authentic name.” Google had a real-name policy for its (now abandoned) Google+ social network. What happened? Google’s policy was described as “evil,”“dangerous,” an “abuse of power.” Facebook’s was criticized for being racist and transphobic.  

Galloway even agrees that these are real issues.  He just thinks that "these concerns can be addressed."  


This will not solve it. The end.

– Dr. Sarah J. Roberts, content moderation expert, author of Behind the Screen, and co-director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry
Scott is ignoring the fact that every study ever done has found that online abuse is more severe, more pervasive, and has greater offline impact when someone is using a verified identity vs persistent pseudonymity.

Denise Paolucci, founder of Dreamwidth

Indeed.  Paolucci included a link to Katja Rost, Lea Stahel, and Bruno S. Frey's 2016 Digital Social Norm Enforcement: Online Firestorms in Social Media.  In another thread, she shared a Alfred Moore's late-2021 Online anonymity: study found ‘stable pseudonyms’ created a more civil environment than real user names. Other studies in York's short list, or the more detailed bibiliographies in Matias', Hamson's, and Hoffman's paper, reached the same conclusion.  

Real names policies don't help prevent abuse, harassment, or trolling.

This is a really bad idea and has been proven to be a bad idea repeatedly. Why it reemerges persistently in the face of significant evidence is the question we should focus on. Whom does it serve to frame the problem this way?

Meredith Whitaker, CEO of Signal

Good question.  Let's hear from some of the critics of real names policies.

Read about what happened to journalists, women, LGBTQ folks, and marginalized groups more broadly, during the NYMWARS ten years ago.

– opensourceress Aeva Black

Good suggestion.  Nymwars!, from my old blog Liminal States, has a bunch of quotes from back in the day.*  Here's a few:

Quotes from Kathy Sierra, Caterina Fake, Denise Paolucci, Latoya Petersen, s.e. smith, Newsinchin_tweeter, and danah boyd.  See the linked article for the full quotes.

Here's some more recent quotes, in response to Galloway's article:

This path always ends in harassment and stalking for marginalized people. Especially those that are feminine presenting & not white.

Mikki Kendall, author of Hood Feminism
Inhibiting anonymity / obligating use of real names, does little to inhibit abuse, but it DOES boost disenfranchisement & censorship of the poor & less able

former Facebook engineer Allen Muffet
this is a really great idea except for the tiny little issues that it'll hurt a lot of vulnerable people and that it won't alleviate the moderation issues naive people generally think they're addressing.

really great. just those caveats. otherwise, great idea.

Ali Alkhatib, Director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco.

Hey wait a second, I'm noticing a pattern here.  

Geek Feminism's Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy? list goes into more detail about how these policies impact women; LGBTAIQ2S+ people***; victims of real-world abuse and harassment (who often need pseudonyms to protect themselves); people whose names subject them to discrimination based on race, religion, cultural and/or socio-economic bias; and other marginalized groups.****

So it seems to me the answer to Whitaker's question is pretty straightforward.  

When the "real names" idea reemerges persistently in the face of significant evidence that it's a bad idea, it serves the interests of those who want to harm women, LGBTAIQ2S+ people, victims of real world abuse and harassment, people whose names subject them to discrimination based on race, religion, cultural and/or socio-economic bias, and other marginalized groups.

Of course, people like Galloway who aren't the ones who will be harmed and keep suggesting the idea probably don't see it that way. How convenient for them.

* And if you're reallllly interested in the nymwars and Google+, here's my 11-part series:  A Work in Progress, Why it matters, #nymwars!, A tale of two searches, The double bind of oppression, Anxious masculinity under threat, Still a Ways to Go, Booberday, Talk about a hostile environment, The Trend is in the Wrong Direction, and In Chaos There Is Opportunity.

** Wait a second, does Galloway really think that internet history started with Google+ in 2011 and the 2015 victory for drag queens as Facebook apologises for ‘real-name’ policy?

Kids today!

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, here's how things really looked in 1993.

A dog at a computer, saying to another dog, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
Peter Steiner's New Yorker cartoon: On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

*** I'm using  LGBTAIQ2S+ as a shorthand for lesbian, gay, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, bi, trans, asexual, agender, intersex, queer, questioning, two-sprit, and others who are not straight, cis, or heteronormative.  Julia Serrano's trans, gender, sexuality, and activism glossary has definitions for most of terms, although resources like OACAS Library Guides' Two-spirit identities page go into a lot more detail. Serrano also discusses the tensions between ever-growing and always incomplete acronyms and more abstract terms like "gender and sexual minorities".

**** Galloway links to the Geek Feminism page, so he knows how harmful is suggestions are to women, LGBTAIQ2S+ people, and so on.  Apparently he thinks it's enough to say that "these problems can be addressed" without saying how. Kara Swisher, if you happen to see this, would you please put  him on the spot for this on one of your podcasts?  Thanks!

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