Facebook May Think Your Account Is A Fake
Facebook’s attempt to purge fake accounts from its social network site is knocking out some real people with unusual names.
Users such as Alicia Istanbul, who opened her Facebook account in 2007, recently found herself locked out after Facebook suddenly deemed it a fake.Â In addition to being cut off from her network of 330 friends, the stay-at-home mom was also without access to the pages she had established for the jewelry design business she runs from her home near Atlanta, Georgia.
Although she understands why Facebook would want to have only real people behind real names for each account, Istanbul wonders why the social network site didn’t simply ask before taking such action.
"They should at least give you a warning, or at least give you the benefit of the doubt," she told the Associated Press.
"I was on it all day. I had built my entire social network around it. That’s what Facebook wants you to do."
The issue is yet another challenge for the 5-year-old social networking site, which has grown to become a growing part of the lives of its more than 200 million users.
Facebook is finding that the vast diversity and the large user base are making it more difficult to enforce rules it established when its membership was smaller and more uniform.
The Palo Alto, California-based company’s site has grown from a closed network available only to college students to a vast global social network used by multiple generations of users. Â
Although Facebook has worked hard to design its guidelines and features to accommodate its changing audience, requiring people to sign up under their real name is part of Facebook’s allure and authenticity.
To ensure that people can’t establish accounts with fake names, the site maintains a consistently updated "blacklist" of names that people are not permitted to use.Â Such names can either be ones that might sound fake, such as Spider Man, or names associated with current events, like Susan Boyle.Â Although there are scores of Susan Boyles on Facebook already, those who tried to sign up with the name after the 47-year-old British woman became an unlikely singing sensation had more trouble doing so.
Barry Schnitt, a spokesman for Facebook, acknowledged that the site does make mistakes on occasion, and apologized for "any inconvenience."
However, situations like Istanbul’s are rare, and most accounts that are disabled as fakes truly are, he added.
"The vast, vast, vast majority of people we disable we never hear from again," he said. Because the exceptions are so rare, prior notification is "not something we are doing right now."
Facebook is currently available in more than 40 languages, with a user base exceeding the population of Brazil.Â But in financial terms, the firm is still a startup.Â The $210 million the company generated in U.S. ad revenue last year is well below the $585 million estimated for its News Corp.-owned competitor, MySpace.
Facebook is now seeking ways to become self-sustaining and reduce its reliance on outside investors.Â Â In 2007, Microsoft bought a 1.6 percent stake for $240 million.Â However, Facebook later concluded it wasn’t even close to the $15 billion market value implied in the deal.
Since Facebook has only about 850 employees, getting responses to complaints can be a lengthy process.Â Indeed, Istanbul said it took three weeks to get her account reinstated.
Being without her account for so long left her feeling felt "completely cut off" from her contacts, she told the AP.
Out of frustration, she sent e-mails, then followed up with mailed letters to 12 Facebook executives, but was ultimately forced to “hijack” her husband’s account to maintain contact with her friends and monitor her business pages, she said.
"I think they just assume you can’t have an interesting name," she said, referring to Facebook.
"I kept my maiden name because it’s such an interesting name, I didn’t want to give it up. And now I am having to defend my name."
The suspension of an account by the name of “˜Robin Kills The Enemy’ triggered a friend to start the group "Facebook: don’t discriminate against Native surnames!!!" on the site. The group now has more than 3,200 members, some with Native last names who’ve had their account disabled by Facebook.
"If you deal with this kind of thing all the time, and on top of that Facebook wants you to prove your identity, … it’s adding insult to injury," Nancy Kelsey, who started the Facebook group, told the Associated Press.
She said Facebook should fix the problem so it "wouldn’t be so offensive" when a real name is considered fake.
"Native American surnames mean something," said Kelsey, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
"They are points of pride, points of identity. It’s not someone trying to make up a fake name."
Lisa Istanbul Krikorian, Istanbul’s sister, also saw her account suspended after being deemed a fake.Â She has since created another account that omits her maiden name.Â Â Â Their mother and their cousin were not able to sign up under their real names.
"They had to misspell their last names," Alicia Istanbul told the AP, so their names wouldn’t be flagged as fake by Facebook’s system.
Her mom added an extra "n" to spell "Istannbul," and her cousin added an "e" to become "Istanbule."
The last name Strawberry is also problematic with Facebook, leading many Strawberrys to misspell their names as "Strawberri," "Sstrawberry" or "Strawberrii."
However, such changes make it difficult to reconnect with old classmates and long-lost friends who search based on accurate spellings.Â Â
"No one is going to find you if your last name is spelled wrong," Istanbul said.
Unlike some other social network sites, Facebook insists on real names behind each user’s account.Â Businesses and other entities are supposed to use fan pages and groups, while regular accounts are for real people, the company says.
Facebook maintains its "real name culture" is one of the company’s core principles, and fosters "accountability and, ultimately, creates a safer and more trusted environment for all of our users," Schnitt said.
"We require people to be who they are."
Once the site disables accounts it considers fake, its holder has to contact Facebook to prove the name is real.Â In some cases, the company may require a person to fax a copy of a government-issued identification, which the company says it destroys once the account is verified.
However, an informal search on Facebook shows that efforts to purge fake names may be a futile task.Â One recent search for "stupid," for instance, revealed more than 27 people matches, most looking questionable at best. Furthermore, some 20 "I.P. Freely" accounts and 13 "Seymour Butts” can also be found on the site.
Although a great majority of the phony accounts are created for humor or sometimes as a vehicle for malicious activity, others are to protect users from having their postings create issues when they later apply for jobs or school.
Facebook has comprehensive privacy settings, but they are complex and many do not use them properly.
Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said having real people behind personal accounts gives Facebook added credibility.
"If they let fake names and accounts proliferate people are going to take it less seriously," he told the Associated Press.
Nevertheless, he believes the site should notify the holders of accounts deemed fake.
"The first step in any sort of takedown action is to notify," he said.
"What’s the rush? Why not give somebody 24, 48 hours?"
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