In a rare break with Facebook's tradition of forcing users to post under their real names, the company will let people post sensitive health-related information anonymously to Facebook Groups, the company announced Tuesday.
Specifically, users will be able to send posts to the administrators of these groups, many of which are secret or closed, to post questions on their behalf. It also separates groups that are dedicated to health issues with a special "health support" designation.
The changes could help people feel more confident posting to these groups, which are often sponsored or supported by drug companies. Ensuring that these groups are active and vibrant could help Facebook as it increasingly looks to health care and pharmaceutical companies for advertising.
Facebook has faced significant criticism over the last few years over how it uses and shares information from its users. When it comes to health care, the company has made missteps such as allowing marketers to harvest contact info from private groups and removing photos of breast cancer survivors' mastectomies after mistakenly identifying them as pornography.
Facebook acknowledges that it hasn't solved all these problems, although it is making some steps that it hopes will help the members of these groups.
Hema Budaraju, a product management director for health at Facebook, told CNBC that the company has been doing "extensive research" to understand the needs of patients who rely on Facebook.
"We believe that it's a good time for us to be even more responsible in building tools to better serve these audiences," she said. "We'll be looking to learn more about this space."
Budaraju, who also works on Facebook's blood donation feature, stressed that Facebook's work isn't done. The company still has a ways to go in managing health misinformation, which continues to spread despite recent efforts, and to moderate content so that users with serious illnesses won't get marketed to with snake oil cures.
Facebook's recent privacy scandals haven't driven patients away from the site.
Wego Health, a company that connects influential patients with health-care companies, surveyed more than 400 patients earlier this year and found that 98% still use Facebook, 94% are part of a health-related Facebook group, and only 3% have deleted their account because of privacy concerns. The report's authors concluded that for many patients, Facebook is too essential to delete.
Ashley M. Greiner, an attorney who suffers from congestive heart failure, has been working with Facebook on the new feature. Greiner's group for fellow patients is closed, meaning there's an approval process to join, and some of its members are very active while others only absorb information. Greiner doesn't invite doctors and other health professionals into the group, so it will represent a safe space for members. She's also eager to avoid any posts that market potential cures or treatments.
Greiner requested that Facebook make it easier for her 1,600 members to post anonymously, but the company had mostly insisted that users post with their real names (with a few recent exceptions). Greiner said she was able to get in touch with the Facebook health team after she was referred by another person in the group, who happened to get a job at Facebook.
"I have members who want to ask questions, and they don't want to offend anyone, or they just don't want a spouse or caregiver to see it," she said. "Anonymous posting is a great step toward making support groups better."