Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

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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.

On the many, many faces of courage: A follow-up

Wow. When we created this yesterday and tossed it up on my site, I wasn’t expecting the huge response it received (something like 3,000 hits and ~200 retweets in less than 24 hours). Most of the reactions were extremely positive. Some were disgusting and misogynist, but not unexpected. Some were critical, but fair: I especially take to heart points about the erasure of non-whiteness or non-maleness in the initial image, and Renata’s astute comment all of the faces highlighted having much more exposure already than those whose activism takes place offline or out of the public eye.

While I absolutely take those critiques to heart (and have spoken to folks individually), I do think that, in a sense, they miss the forest for the trees. As I said in the initial post, the point of this exercise was not to erase or diminish the sacrifices of people like Aaron Swartz or Chelsea Manning or Jake Appelbaum or Julian Assange, but to point out two things: First, that whomever created the graphic may have failed to recognize the whiteness of the images, perpetuating privilege (even if, as I’ve acknowledged,  the individuals in the image are indeed disempowered). And second: that courage has many faces.

There was one comment from WikiLeaks (whose response I do appreciate) that particularly struck me, and while I disagree with it, I can accept it as critique for explaining purpose more effectively.  By messaging that “courage is contagious” with a group of white-seeming, male-seeming faces, we are not effectively getting “the audience to act using whatever tricks one can.” Instead, we are speaking only to a possible segment of the audience that may not feel inspired by seeing faces like their own not reflected back at them.

I stand by what I did, and am particularly inspired to see the ways in which others have remixed the idea to demonstrate that courage indeed does have many faces, many of which are unknown or less empowered than even those on the image I presented.  I enjoyed @zararah’s take, which included some of her heroes. Nick Farr’s version was lovely to include me, but much more importantly, it reminds us that “hero” takes on a different meaning for each person. Renata highlighted activists that I’d never even heard of. Sarah took the opportunity to remind people to support research for Huntington’s Disease.

The wonderful thing is, misogynist assholes aside, even those with serious reservations were able to get behind the concept. While they may not have agreed with my approach, no serious person contested the idea that more faces need to be known, that some are routinely excluded, and that there are many people both spreading and catching the courage bug. For that I’m grateful, and inspired.

Courage: It’s not just for white men

Yesterday, my dear friend Morgan re-posted the following image with this comment: “It appears that courage is a white dude thang….”


The image, initially posted by Pirate Parties International, features whistleblowers and others who have been lauded for their courage in the vague but connected realm of Internet activism. The image also only features white dudes.*

I was incredibly disheartened by the majority of comments Morgan received. While some people tried to argue that Jewish men aren’t white (a valid perspective in relation to some issues, but not this one), others pointed out that Chelsea Manning is a trans woman (true, but she’s not represented as a woman here). Even those that understood the problem only seemed capable of coming up with one missing woman: Laura Poitras.

The lionization of white dudes is a common, even basic, issue that’s been getting a ton of attention lately, but I guess I’m still surprised when it happens in what I consider to be my own community. It’s not that some of these white men aren’t heroes, rather, it’s that by representing courage with only white male faces, we erase the work of many other incredible and heroic whistleblowers, activists, lawyers, and hackers.

As Morgan reminded me, this is a self-perpetuating problem. White men feature and promote the work of other white men, leading to boardrooms and other spaces that look like this. Except, in this case, there are other people in the room. Hell, there are people in the Pirate Party that could’ve made the cut. And yet, somehow, they didn’t.

In any case, we knew what we had to do. So with the photo editing assistance of the talented Marie Gutbub, we made our own version. Please share it widely.


Clockwise from top left: Sana Saleem, Birgitta Jonsdottir, Sami Ben Gharbia, Jesselyn Radack, Laura Poitras, Cindy Cohn, Renata Avila, Alaa Abd El Fattah

There are many talented women and people of color who deserve to be on this list. Rather than creating a rigorous process to select them, though, we instead just quickly came up with eight names. It took about one minute, demonstrating that you don’t have to look very far to find heroes that aren’t white men.



*Yes, I’m aware, and originally noted, that Chelsea Manning is in that image. But as you’ve probably noticed, Chelsea Manning is included in that image as Bradley Manning, and in a tie, a very masculine piece of attire. There are images of Chelsea available as Chelsea, but the Pirate Party folks chose to misgender her anyway posted the older image despite her transitioning. Therefore, I am not incorrect in stating that this is an image of white dudes made even more problematic by the fact that the one non-dude in it is represented as a man.

It was pointed out to me later that the image was published before Chelsea’s transition was made public. The onus is still on the Pirate Party for sharing it (not only for this reason) but they’re not responsible for its creation.

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