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How will new Facebook identity policy affect journalists?

As journalists, we would have to be living under a rock not to recognize the value of social media websites where users voluntarily provide the world with more personal information than you could ever expect to gather through the Freedom of Information Act.

In Florida, although regulated by the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, driver’s license and motor vehicle information is considered “public record” — however, your driver’s license photo is not. No worries, the chances are pretty good that between publically posted mug shots and social sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, with a little googling, you can find someone’s image in cyberspace.

From my 15 years of experience as a Florida licensed private detective, I can tell you when investigating newsworthy events, sometimes a pretext or pseudonym is necessary to ferret out the truth. We also rely on confidential informants who are in a vital position to reveal facts pertaining to activity that is unethical, illegal or both. If journalists were not able to shield those confidential sources, the public would never know the extent of what was going on.

Facebook has recently taken a lot of blowback from users for cracking down on account holders who have used other names to create their Facebook profiles. In a public posting on their website yesterday, an official with the company wrote:

I want to apologize to the affected community of drag queens, drag kings, transgender, and extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we’ve put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks.

In the two weeks since the real-name policy issues surfaced, we’ve had the chance to hear from many of you in these communities and understand the policy more clearly as you experience it. We’ve also come to understand how painful this has been. We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we’re going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were.

When informants have to disclose their true identity, they are less likely to say everything they know — even if it serves the common good. Those scoundrels who allow employees, associates, or members of the public to become aware of their illicit activities, rely heavily on fear of reprisal to keep the underlings silent.

If someone wanted to come forward with information or evidence relating to a newsworthy occurrence, but they wanted to be known by a nom de plume, I sure wouldn’t deny them — I would verify the information independently through another source, but the original information is the cornerstone of intelligence gathering.

Is Facebook recognizing that, because of the volumes of personally identifiable information and images that users have provided, some may want more anonymity? Perhaps. Some say that everyone is entitled to their privacy — but not anonymity. No doubt we will see an increase in trolls who hide behind false profiles just to commit drive-by assaults in public forums.

Stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad. Facebook says they investigate several hundred thousand fake name reports every single week, 99 percent of which are bad actors doing bad things: impersonation, bullying, trolling, domestic violence, scams, hate speech, and more.

Do you use Facebook as a source of information for your articles? What effect, if any, do you see the relaxed Facebook policy having on journalists? Do you have plans to create an anonymous profile? Would you respond to, or take seriously, any newsworthy information that obviously was submitted to you by an anonymous source?

Photo credits: © 2014 Facebook archive

Michael Gold

St Augustine native, Michael Gold, is editor at Historic City News. He is an advocate for grassroots citizen journalism whose job is holding public figures accountable to the public. Founded on the Internet in March 2000, HCN has developed from a periodic newsletter, to an interactive platform, to a publication read by the area's most engaged citizens. Historic City News is focused on news originating from or having an impact on St Augustine and St Johns County. Contact by e-mail

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