The continuing saga of Facebook’s real name policy and the harm its doing

A few months ago I wrote about Facebook’s “real name” policy and the harm it was doing. I thought that with the attention the drag queens were giving the issue that it would take a while, but that in the end Facebook would change its policy. After all, there is only so much negative publicity a company of even Facebook’s size can take and surely, at some point, Facebook would realize how much pain it was causing the wrong people.

But I was wrong. At the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco, at the end of June, LGBTQ groups were calling for Facebook to be barred from marching in the parade because this policy. At the time, numerous stories appeared about how many members of the LGBTQ community were being targeted and eventually harmed by the policy. By having other users report their names as fake, these users were required to submit legal documents to Facebook proving that the name they were using on Facebook was their legal one, or relinquish access to the account. For many, especially in the trans community, this was a hard to choice to make.

Zoë Cat, a former Facebook employee, wrote the best post on the complexity of names that I have read and says that Facebook accepted the name she goes by for her employee badge, but not as a user. “I always knew this day would come. The day that Facebook decided my name was not real enough and summarily cut me off from my friends, family and peers and left me with the stark choice between using my legal name or using a name people would know me by.” Zoë Cat added that Facebook’s policy for name authenticity makes sense overall. “Creating a social network where people used the names that they were already recognized by has made it more accessible and popular than any other social network in the world.” The theory is that using a name that other people recognize will drive up interaction and engagement, which leads to more time spent on Facebook, leading to more ad impressions. Ka ching.

But as  Zoë Cat said: “The problem comes at the interface where this notion collides with reality. Names aren’t that simple and the reasons people use names are also not that simple… We use names that don’t match our ID on Facebook for safety, or because we’re trans, or because we’re just straight up not known by our legal names.”

Even though the latest fracas was protesting Facebook’s inclusion in San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade in late June, Facebook’s “real names” policy goes beyond hurting the trans community. It also ensnares drag queens, Native Americans, and victims of domestic violence, among others. Most recently, Feminista Jones, who calls herself a “social justice organizer and uses Facebook as a platform to engage people in work to improve the lives of many around the country and world.” She has written multiple articles under that identity and uses that name on other social media sites. Like many of the “real name” victims, it is not her legal name but it is the name she is known by to her peers. She is taking a novel approach to being reinstated on Facebook: asking the community to persuade Facebook that she is, indeed, known as Feminista Jones.

It turns out that Facebook makes it extremely hard for people who have had their name flagged and, as a consequence, their account disabled, to get their account back. They need to submit numerous legal paperwork  which, again, is difficult for some members, as the name they are known by and have used on Facebook is not their legal name. One user, Jemmaroid von Laalaa, has even gone so far as to change the legal name to the Facebook name, but still hasn’t seen their account reinstated.

Facebook has long maintained that if users don’t play by their rules in this case, the “real name” policy, then they don’t have to use the site. This is disingenuous of them, to underestimate the impact that Facebook has on users and how it helps them maintain their relationships with distant family members, friends, former classmates and coworkers. It was Facebook’s goal, and it has reached it, that Facebook become an integral part of our online lives. Zoë Cat described what losing access to a Facebook account meant: “I really cannot understate the impact being kicked off the site can have. Facebook is my main way of communicating with much of my social circle. It’s how I’ve found housing and housemates. It’s where I’ve found job leads, received support in hard times, and helped other people through theirs.” Saying to users, at this point in time of Facebook’s dominance, our way or the highway, is not the answer.

Cakes don't require real names, just enough frosting... and space!

Cakes don’t require real names, just enough frosting… and space!

The answer is to start treating all the “real names” cases with more care and more humanity. Instead of sending out the automatic request, take a look at the “offending” user’s activity. Are they being harmful? Are they harassing other users? Are they posting offensive content that is doesn’t meet Facebook’s community guidelines? If the answer to all of these is “no,” why not leave the user alone? Let them use any name they would like. Most likely that name will still match the criteria Facebook themselves have stated: the name most acquaintances know. Instead of sticking to letter of the “real name” guideline, stick to the intent. Have a human look at each case and take time to listen, really listen, to the users who are caught in the middle.

One last thing. This “real names” mess has been going on for a long time, but Facebook has remained steadfast in enforcing the policy as they see it. By ignoring the harm done to users and digging its heels in, Facebook opened itself up to government intervention and eventual regulation, something it probably doesn’t want. Europe is generally more aggressively protective of user rights and privacy than the US and, sure enough, in Germany, Johannes Caspar, Hamburg’s data regulator, said “that Facebook may not unilaterally change such accounts to the real names of users and may not block them.” Will Europe force Facebook to change its policy?  Hopefully, Facebook will make changes on its own before that happens.

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