Kicking Ass and Taking Names

Facebook has made a few concessions in the real-name policy, and there are some updates to the status of this fight.

#MyNameIs protesters rally outside Facebook’s headquarters. (Photo by Joe Kukura)

When Facebook intensified enforcement of its “real-name” policy, users worldwide were grudgingly forced to ditch their chosen names or stage names for the legal names that appeared on their state-issued IDs. Thanks to a compromise that added tools and options allowing people to use names other than their legal names on the platform, some high-profile performers and LGBT activists have recently gotten their preferred names back. But some of the benefits of this measure are only available to a limited number of users, and the ability to get your name changed on Facebook often requires a connection with one of the activists behind this effort.

Facebook launched this crackdown on stage names, nicknames, and adopted names in September 2014, locking many users out of their accounts after deeming their identities fake or inauthentic (notwithstanding a person’s right to choose their own name). The policy disproportionately affected the LGBT community — particularly trans people — and a small group of local activists launched a movement called #MyNameIs that elicited an apology from Facebook and the promise of a technical solution to facilitate use of preferred names.

Most of the core team from #MyNameIs continue to meet with Facebook and have weekly email exchanges requesting help with user identity and clarification on the appeal process,” says Sister Roma, longtime member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and one of the primary organizers of the #MyNameIs movement.

Once, nicknames and pseudo-accounts were extremely common on Facebook. That fun all came to a halt in 2012, when a quarterly-earnings report estimated that about 83 million of the platform’s accounts were fake.

In response, investors dumped their Facebook stock, and the company lost nearly half of its value from an record-setting IPO. Facebook quickly implemented the strict real-names policy, one that was particularly unfriendly toward Native American names, trans people who no longer identified by their birth name, and individuals who used assumed names as their public personas.

Three years (and many suspended accounts) after the #MyNameIs controversy, a few high-profile Facebook users are getting their preferred names back.

“We’re committed to making sure people can express themselves and use the names they’re known by, whether that’s their legal name or not,” a Facebook spokesperson tells SF Weekly. “Feedback from our community has helped us improve how we verify names, and we are testing additional product improvements.”

Facebook insists these policies are meant to discourage online harassment, not enable it. “Online bullies often hide behind anonymity,” the spokesperson says. “In fact, more than 50 percent of the people who experience online harassment don’t know the identity of the aggressor, according to a 2014 study on online harassment from the Pew Research Center on Online Harassment.”

But some in the LGBT community feel they were targeted by self-appointed “identity police” who reported drag queens and burlesque performers’ accounts en masse. Facebook rightfully prioritizes detecting and blocking fake “bot” accounts, but these measures sometimes drag in drag queens and LGBT user accounts as collateral damage. And getting one’s preferred Facebook username still requires having or making a personal connection with one of the core members of the #MyNameIs team.

“Although Facebook has made changes to ‘fake’ name reporting and made it more difficult to report someone, I personally send in five to 10 names a week to my contact there,” Sister Roma tells SF Weekly. “Usually, people’s names are restored within a few days. Facebook has claimed that they have increased their manpower and real people behind the appeals process, but there is no way to deny that the responses feel automated.

“Quite often, people are still tossed into the cycle of Facebook demanding ID for users to prove their identity,” Sister Roma adds. “Three years after our initial conflict and the protest at Facebook headquarters, we still need to remind them that thousands if not millions of Facebook users have [an] authentic identity they cannot prove with a piece of paper.”

The real-name policy has also affected burlesque performers who prefer their stage names. Red Hots Burlesque producer Dottie Lux has helped a number of people get adopted names returned to their Facebook accounts.

“My email inbox is full right now from people who want help. I’ve helped 130 people in the past two weeks,” Lux says. “It’s not just performers. It’s people who are trans, people who just go by different names, people that have two X’s in their names because that’s just the way it’s spelled. Facebook flags all of that as being unnatural, unacceptable, and somehow ‘other.’ ”

“The best advice I have  for people who wish to battle the issue of identity and end fake name reporting is to use your voice and the community,” Sister Roma says. “Speak up on all social media platforms. Go to a meeting of your local Pride organization and encourage them to put pressure on Facebook to realize how this problem directly affects our community. Contact your local media. Engage your LGBTQ leaders and local trans organizations” she says. “Facebook responds well to pressure from outside organizations and the media.”

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