Facebook’s Anonymous App Could Kill Trolls With Secret Identity

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Wack-a-mole. That’s what it’s usually like fighting trolls, bullies, and spammers in anonymous communities. Ban them and they just start new accounts. That’s why the fact that Facebook knows who you really are could be the key to its upcoming anonymous app.

You could stay anonymous to other users, but Facebook login on the backend could track the jerks and keep them out. Powered by its anti-thesis, Facebook could unlock the potential of anonymity to let people open up and be vulnerable.

Facebook’s original value was that it knew who you were. Years of pseudo-anonymity on MySpace fostered openness but also a total distrust that anyone was who they said. Demanding people use their real names and verifying them by their college email ushered in an era of authentic identity.

With it came more civil discussion. People could be held accountable for their comments and actions. When your reputation is on the line, people typically exhibit less bullying, trolling, spamming, sexism, racism, homophobia, violent threats, and other disruptive behavior. That permits rational conversation, even about polarizing subjects.

Facebook eventually built an embeddable commenting widget to bring authentic identity to the comment reels of blogs and other websites. It worked. At TechCrunch we saw a marked decrease in dirtbaggery when we switched to Facebook comments.

But what authentic identity curtails is the expression of polite but controversial and unpopular opinions that people might not want connected to their name. It can also discourage participation in threads about sensitive or deeply personal topics like health, sexuality, relationships, and religion. That’s unfortunate because these are exactly the types of conversations susceptible to trolling and hate.

So anonymity enables vulnerable sharing but also disruption of this sharing, while authentic identity safeguards but also encroaches on open-hearted discourse.

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The potential of Facebook’s anonymous app is to combine the best of both. Mike Isaac of the New York Times reported last week that Facebook is close to launching an app that permits pseudonymous discussion of interests or other topics. Josh Miller, the Facebook product manager running the team, confirmed that the company was working on an app of this nature but that it’s about more than just anon for anon’s sake.

It’s not the first to try this, but perhaps it’s the best equipped. Anonymous app Secret, for example, verified people by their phone number. This way if someone gets banned, they can’t easily delete the app, reinstall it, and just sign up for a new account. That is, unless they set up a second phone number, which is a cinch for veteran trolls or spammers with a financial incentive.

The opportunity for Facebook here is enormous because it’s got a way to check if someone is real that’s extremely tough to fake: Friend count.

Facebook has spent years working on fake profile and phony friend request detection. The result is that it’s quite hard to get a fake profile to have more than a handful of legitimate users as friends. It also takes time. Both this effort and delay deter bad actors.

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So here’s how I imagine Facebook could create a well-mannered anonymous discussion app.

Users sign up with their existing Facebook account and perhaps a verified phone number as well. Facebook assesses their profile and only allows them in if they meet a threshold of legitimacy, such as having 15 friends or more and having joined Facebook more than a few months ago. Inside the app, the user is totally anonymous or pseudonymous to others on the app. Only Facebook secretly knows who they are on the backend.

If the user gets flagged by their peers for being a nuisance or is abusive, Facebook can ban their account. But to sign up again, the scoundrel will need a Facebook account that meets the legitimacy threshold, which they can’t generate overnight. They’re locked out.

No more wack-a-mole.

This all sounds dandy on paper but there’s one big problem: people have to trust Facebook. Privacy setting switches, Beacon, dangerous defaults, and doubts about big companies have led to a perception of Facebook as being selfishly concerned with “making the world more open and connected” rather than protecting users.

That will really come back to bite Facebook here. People may be apprehensive to connect their anonymous discussion to their Facebook account, even If promised that no one else will know who they are.

This distrust could seriously hamper growth of whatever Facebook does in its anonymous app. Even if it doesn’t use the new anonymous login feature it unveiled at f8 and just relies on phone numbers like Secret, people still may be weary of saying anything controversial or sensitive on a Facebook-controlled service.

Facebook’s challenge will be building an app valuable enough that people are willing to suspend their skepticism and sign up. If it can, it could permit intimate discussion that breeds compassion and shared understanding. If not, we’ll have definitive proof that when it comes to privacy, karma is king.

[Image via PSU]