Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Facebook responds to the “real name” problem

As you know if you’ve ever read this blog, Facebook has a serious problem with users abusing its reporting mechanisms, particularly when it comes to the “real name” policy. After a recent incident (well-documented by many) involving LGBT performers, the company has finally responded. But the response, of course, is weak. Here’s a response from Chris Cox, a Facebook staffer, with my comments in-line (bold is mine):

I want to apologize to the affected community of drag queens, drag kings, transgender, and extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we’ve put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks.
In the two weeks since the real-name policy issues surfaced, we’ve had the chance to hear from many of you in these communities and understand the policy more clearly as you experience it. We’ve also come to understand how painful this has been. We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we’re going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were.

The way this happened took us off guard. An individual on Facebook decided to report several hundred of these accounts as fake. These reports were among the several hundred thousand fake name reports we process every single week, 99 percent of which are bad actors doing bad things: impersonation, bullying, trolling, domestic violence, scams, hate speech, and more — so we didn’t notice the pattern. The process we follow has been to ask the flagged accounts to verify they are using real names by submitting some form of ID — gym membership, library card, or piece of mail. We’ve had this policy for over 10 years, and until recently it’s done a good job of creating a safe community without inadvertently harming groups like what happened here.

False. As I’ve been documenting for nearly five years, this is a serious problem that affects users around the world.

Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma, that’s Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that’s Lil Miss Hot Mess. Part of what’s been so difficult about this conversation is that we support both of these individuals, and so many others affected by this, completely and utterly in how they use Facebook.

Also false. Facebook’s actual policy states: “What names are allowed on Facebook? … The name you use should be your real name as it would be listed on your credit card, driver’s license or student ID”. Users who are reported are forced to submit (insecurely, no less) this information.

We believe this is the right policy for Facebook for two reasons. First, it’s part of what made Facebook special in the first place, by differentiating the service from the rest of the internet where pseudonymity, anonymity, or often random names were the social norm. Second, it’s the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm. The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance, and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good.

What can I say? Facebook believes this to be true, but a large amount of the abuse on the site occurs with people using their real names. Or names that look like real names. Whatever, they’re only reported when they look “fake,” which is the failure of their system.

All that said, we see through this event that there’s lots of room for improvement in the reporting and enforcement mechanisms, tools for understanding who’s real and who’s not, and the customer service for anyone who’s affected. These have not worked flawlessly and we need to fix that. With this input, we’re already underway building better tools for authenticating the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors. And we’re taking measures to provide much more deliberate customer service to those accounts that get flagged so that we can manage these in a less abrupt and more thoughtful way. To everyone affected by this, thank you for working through this with us and helping us to improve the safety and authenticity of the Facebook experience for everyone.

Well good. Finally. I guess it took Americans being affected for them to care.

4 Comments

  1. Until tonight, this was the address I’d put in for my website. Tonight I got Real-Named. I’ve been on Facebook under the name Nikita Nopants for four years and no one had a problem with it. It’s a nickname I’ve had since the 90s, as much my real name as my birth name. I’m not going by a nickname because I’m a performer, or because I’m avoiding someone who victimized me. I actually answer to that name in real life. I know Sister Roma was fighting against the real name problem, and I thought it had been solved, but I was wrong. I don’t know if she would help me get my account back, but do you think you could contact her and ask? Thanks.

    Nikita F*cking Nopants

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