A Tougher World for People with ‘Unfortunate Internet Names’

A Tougher World for People with ‘Unfortunate Internet Names’

For at least three decades now, millions of us have lived full lives in two separate realms – the real world, and the world online. The internet has asked us to craft versions of our own identity for our websites, our social media profiles, and increasingly, for any chance at achieving our professional goals.

There are so many advantages to this kind of instant knowledge about each other, and communication with each other, across geographical space and cultural distances. But we can’t lose sight of the dangers that are posed to people when their online identities – sometimes even their very names – are corrupted and perverted by forces outside of their control.

A simple example, just to make the point, is the name Karen. The internet has brought untold pain and trauma to any woman with this name through its persistent and widespread memes. This new archetype that sprung out of nowhere reveals how all-encompassing and all-powerful these kinds of identity shifts can become for people who are caught up in their wake – those with “Unfortunate Internet Names”.

There are much darker versions of the ‘unfortunate’ part, of course. Sometimes, basic search results can point a defamatory finger at people who find that their names suddenly have new, shocking connotations. Those who design these systems work hard to avoid such inaccuracies, but the ones they miss can have effects on people that are just as devastating as a deliberate campaign of libel and slander.

A great real-world example is the last name Lolis. Facebook has been forced to explain to people with this name why, in some cases, a search triggers a ‘child sexual abuse’ warning. It turns out, ‘Lolis’ is spelled the same as a code used by certain purveyors of underage pornography. Anyone with that name is in danger of getting caught up in the same algorithmic mess.

“Lolis” refers to underage Japanese manga characters in some dark web forums. It’s also a plural version of “Loli”, short for Lolita. Unfortunately, Lolis became one of those “Unfortunate Internet Names” – and there are many others like it. Letters have been sent to Facebook on behalf of some of these UINs to make them aware of the potential harm these types of flags can have on innocent people’s reputations.

For Facebook, Google, and other big tech companies that are tasked with combating these kinds of sexual abuses, these misconceptions present a daunting challenge. On the one hand, slamming the lid on predators and abusers is an absolute responsibility for every moral person, institution, or company. Flagging suspicious terms, whether they are used openly or coded in slang, must remain a primary focus of Internet technologies.

But for people who suddenly become collateral damage, this strong societal medicine can leave a bitter taste.

The big hope is that with new advances in artificial intelligence (AI), more sophisticated screening techniques will come for online name searches. While it remains imperative to track dangerous criminals, it’s also imperative to protect innocent people from accusations that can destroy their lives.