The Facebook Name Controversy: safety, security and self-identify

Heather Greene —  October 8, 2014 — 28 Comments

Early in September, a large number of people received notification that their Facebook accounts were in violation of company policy. These advisories explained that all users are required to register with their authentic names. Because the majority of flagged accounts belonged to drag queens, there was an immediate outcry based on the assumption that Facebook was deliberately targeting the LGBTQ community. That outcry led to action, and the action led to results.

In response to the initial warnings, affected users such as Sister Roma, Lil Miss Hot Mess, Heklina, and others living in the San Francisco Bay area, immediately spoke out via Twitter, radio shows and other venues. They accused Facebook of discriminatory practices. Sister Roma, a performer, activist and longtime member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, led the charge. In a tweet on Sept. 11, she said:

Sister Roma’s tweet was the catalyst for the hashtag campaign #MyNameIs, which was quickly picked up by other affected Facebook users and, subsequently, printed on purple signs and logos. A live protest at Facebook headquarters was planned for Sept. 16.

However, the protest was canceled when Facebook called a meeting with the activists. On Wed Sept. 17, Sister Roma, Lil Miss Hot Mess and others met with Facebook representatives who explained the reason for the name policy. They gave all the flagged users an extra two weeks to create profiles with their legal names.

By this point news was spreading beyond those directly affected. As that happened, Facebook users, including many Pagans and Heathens, began looking for alternative social media platforms. Many worried that Facebook was stepping up enforcement of its name policy. Like drag queens, many Pagans and Heathens use adopted names corresponding to their chosen identity. The rumored “crack down” could have significant repercussions on the well-being of many social and cultural groups. Sister Krissy Fiction, a Gnostic Pagan and Prioress of the Portland Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, told The Wild Hunt

This is really about much more than just drag queens.There are lots of valid reasons why people might not want to use their legal name on Facebook. While we’ve gained a lot of ground, there are still those in the LGBT community who can’t be fully open about their sexual orientation. They risk losing family relationships and jobs. In the Trans* community, sometimes a legal name might not match their current gender identity or how most people know them. Do we really want to out Trans* people by forcing them to use a name that belongs to a gender they don’t identify with?  

In the meantime, the #MyNameIs campaign was bolstered by the Facebook meeting. A new protest was scheduled for Oct. 2 on the steps of San Francisco’s city hall. One affected user, Mike Woolson or Unkle Mikey, designed this graphic to illustrate clearly that the name policy doesn’t only burden the LGBTQ community.

image2

Facebook’s insistence on maintaining a name policy is encased in very real concerns that fake identities facilitate abusive acts (e.g., cyber-stalking, trolling) and could possibly foster other destructive social or criminal behaviors (e.g., bullying, stalking, domestic violence, terrorism) by masking the real identity of those that commit the acts. It is more difficult for authorities to identify or track an abuser, troll or terrorist, who uses an online pseudonym. However, as illustrated in the above graphic, the same mask that protects the criminal also protects the victim or the potential victim.

Sister Krissy did not have her page removed. She was already using her legal name on Facebook, only partially due to the policy. Sister Krissy is one of the lucky ones who does not worry about the public exposure of both identities. But that level of comfort doesn’t exist for everyone, including many practitioners of alternative religions.

Sister Krissy Fiction [Courtesy Photo]

Sister Krissy Fiction [Courtesy Photo]


Should it matter if the adorned name is for personal protection, artistic expression or sacred purposes? Sister Krissy said:

There is a long tradition of using chosen names within our [Pagan] communities.That exists partly to help protect from possible discrimination, but also because we recognize that there is power in chosen names and we value being able to decide what image we are going to present to the world. The reality is though, that if Facebook doesn’t change the policy, we run the same risk of one individual fueled by spite being able to shut down hundreds of profiles. Sure, this time around it was drag queens and Sisters, but it could have just as easily been someone who doesn’t like Pagans who decided to go on a reporting spree. 

Two weeks after the initial meeting, Facebook called a second one. Sister Roma tweeted, “Off to @facebook representing the millions of users with chosen and protective names – your voice will be heard.”

At that Oct. 1 meeting, Facebook Chief Products Officer Christopher Cox formally apologized to the coalition of activists and the represented communities. In a press release, Cox explained that the company was not at all targeting drag queens. The accounts were flagged only after someone complained. Additionally, he stated, “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.” The response was posted on Facebook:

 

After that meeting and Cox’ public statement, the coalition of activists announced that the Oct. 2 protest would now be a #MyNameIs Victory Rally. While some have criticized Facebook for its back peddling in the wake of potentially losing customers, most people are applauding Facebook for attempting to find workable solutions that fit their security concerns and also serve the real needs of loyal users. In an Oct. 5 video interview, Sister Roma said that she was “thrilled with Facebook.”

Sister Krissy agreed, saying: “I do appreciate and accept the apology. However, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. I appreciate the apology, but I’ll appreciate some real changes even more. I’m hopeful that Facebook will do the right thing.” As critics have pointed out, the policy has yet to be changed. Facebook’s promise was only to evolve the way it enforces the policy, not to alter the policy itself. Some don’t consider this a win.

However, The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), who had representatives at the Oct. 1 meeting, suggested otherwise. It said in part:

The coalition in attendance, including HRC – which is a member of Facebook’s Network of Support team, combatting [sic] anti-LGBT bullying online – will continue to work with Facebook’s team as the policy is clarified and new measures are put into place to ensure LGBT community members can still think of Facebook as place to call home.

Despite HRC involvement and Facebook’s apparent interest in serving a diversity of populations, both revising and enforcing the policy poses complications that raise questions about self-making and identity within our culture. Facebook wants to protect its product through preventing phony user accounts employed for spamming purposes and false identities that mask criminal activity. Even if Facebook doesn’t require legal proof of identity, issues will still arise. How do you prove a legitimate, self-made identity that has no documentation? Many religious-based or Craft personas fall into that category. They can’t be proven with even unofficial documents such as junk mail or club cards.

Regardless of these sticking points, like Google before them, Facebook has now conceded that the process of defining what constitutes a “real identity” is complex and requires more than a simple algorithm or automated process. “Real identity” extends beyond the typed letters on a birth certificate or gas bill.

On Saturday, Crystal Blanton will tackle this subject. In her column “Culture and Community,” she will explore the issue as it specifically relates to Pagans and Heathens who, like drag queens, often live with multiple real identities and multiple real names.

 

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and journalist, living in the Deep South. Professionally, she has worked for Grey Advertising Global, Coca Cola Company and GCI. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League and has formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Merlyn7

    Several of my pagan friends who are known to most people in their lives by their craft names have been forced to change their FB names to their legal names and it’s been pretty disheartening for them. The apology came and went and they are still required to have their profile match their driver’s license.

    • KhonsuMes Matt

      Agree. Weeks before the Sisters publicized this to the heavens (Bless them!), practitioners in some magical (Hoodoo/Conjure) and ADR/ATR communities were targeted. Many were forced to change their names and the old names haven’t come back.

    • Greybeard Wise

      I don’t understand how people are forced to change their FB names. I’ve never had trouble with FB complaining about my Pagan name account. I use different e-mail for each name. No problems.

      • Merlyn7

        No one has reported your name yet.

  • Surely there are other ways to fight cyber-bullying other than this draconian measure. Besides, wouldn’t eliminating pseudonym accounts come close to cutting Facebook’s 1.23 billion membership in half?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I’d like to add to the #MyNameIs graphic: Having an abusive former client track you down. (I’m married to the person with that problem and we share an unusual last name in a small town.)

    • Another thing to add to the graphic is: No one of my names satisfactorilly identifies all of the parts of me, or, Who I am depends on what I am doing and where.

  • This might just be me, but how in the nineteen hells does FB _know_ that isn’t your real name?

    • Merlyn7

      Someone sees it and reports it and it gets tagged for review. You then need to produce proof that it’s your legal name.

      • that… is beyond messed up. I mean, a system like that is just begging to be abused. Can anyone report it? What about unusual names like Wolf or Mithrandir – someone comes along and decides they don’t like it, and they shut down your account for no frelling reason until you can produce legal documentation to their sastifaction? WTF?

        • Kay

          Their entire reporting system is a joke. A lot of it is automated, and things that get reported are flagged (or not) by a logarithm, not a human. It takes a while for an actual person to get involved, and even then, no guarantee it’s a person who speaks the language the post is made in. End result, one person’s breast feeding pic gets banned, while someone else’s torture porn gets past the filters unless enough different people report it.

  • NeoWayland

    Two points that I heard on the internet years and years ago.

    First, if you’re getting a “free” service on the internet, chances are you’re the product.

    Second, the only way to avoid being controlled on the internet is with a domain and server space you control.

    • kenofken

      That’s exactly right. Facebook is a sucker’s game. In exchange for a service worth tens of dollars a month, you sign away ALL of your online privacy and the rights to your digital identity. Facebook is not going to “do the right” thing and so long as people sign themselves over to be the company’s product, they’re going to use them any way it sees fit.

  • I was very briefly on Facebook. But most of my friends online are pagan and they know me as Labrys(6) or Syrbal, so the Facebook insistence made my membership there useless and I deleted it. Also, I have occasionally been stalked online; I don’t particularly need an account somewhere that would link up with real name, address, etc.

  • Greybeard Wise

    I have a FB account on my family name to use keeping up with my family. I have another FB account on my Pagan name that is used for my coven and Pagan relationships. I could post my Pagan activity on my family account but many of them are not Pagan so it would be “in your face” and rude. Why indeed.

  • Aa

    I have had friends stalked etc from real names!! Pedophiles hanging out near houses because of kids!! People scared to join groups etc because of not nice people targetting there wk home place etc! With twenty dollars you can pay and find out anything from a reg online search and identity fraud! This is def not in FB rights to do!! This will hurt more people then help and it is targeting the LGBT community and a lot of people don’t want their coworkers to know if there pagans sorry and the age of freedom of religion is still judged and frowned upon!! Bad move FB

  • Well, I just came home to find my FB Pagan page had been locked down because of not having my “real name”. I guess that Facebook is not living up to their word to stop doing this.

  • Indigo Glitterlust

    I had my FB page shut down in early September because “it looks like you’re not using your real name.” I subsequently found a twitter account called “@realnamepolice” who was going through mostly drag queens’ and porn performers’ pages and reporting them for not being real names (even though some of the people reported WERE using their real names–this person didn’t care/do the research).

    • My Gods, there’s actually a group of vigilantes out there hunting down people who use an online moniker? They must have a lot of time and little brains to want to police this kind of thing. Jeez.

      • A lot of hate. We’ve seen this kind of targeting in the Pagan world recently, but drag queens are always a target to a bigot.

        • Argus Romanus

          I also can’t help but wonder if some of this is coming from within the community, ie, part of somebody’s witchwar. It feels like we’ve see more troll action of late, too.

      • mysticserpent007

        I have a Facebook account with a moniker myself. If anyone reports me, all I can say to them is this: it must really suck to be you.

  • MadeUpFacebookName

    Facebook is not a commons. It’s not a government service, and it’s not a collectively managed resource. It’s one advertising company that managed to become rather successful because they figured out a nifty business model where they get people to give them information for free that they would otherwise have to pay for. They profit by selling that information, with a couple ads thrown on the user interface for good measure.
    Facebook pays money out of their pockets to host your profile because they assume they can get more money from selling the information you put on that profile than they have to spend to keep it online. Facebook is only able to host your profile because they can make more money from selling the information you put on your page than it costs to host your page: Even if they wanted to let you share selfies and have online arguments out of the goodness of their hearts, they wouldn’t be able to afford to keep the servers running if they didn’t make a profit.
    Facebook wants legal names because that’s worth more to advertisers. That’s important, because that’s all Facebook is: A company that sells information to advertisers. It’s not about rights and it’s not about discrimination. It’s about whether Facebook, when they run the numbers, determines that they can make more money by selling a higher quality of user data, or a higher quantity of user data.

    • kenofken

      I see Facebook as another symptom/driver of what I call the parasite/scavenger economic model. Nobody thinks they should have to pay a fair price for anything, or create anything of real value to get paid. It’s all about rent-seeking and “leveraging” this or that. Shell games, fine print games, spin games. Nothing is free, and deals constructed to hide the cost are very expensive in the end.

    • While I don’t disagree with you, at least not entirely, I do feel that too much emphasis is being placed on the nature of the advertising schemes on Facebook. Certainly, there has always been advertising on the site but it is really only in the last couple of years that we have seen a marked increase and shift of focus from social media to advetising platform.
      When the site was just a social media platform for direct person to person networking and communication, the name thing was a non-issue because it didn’t matter. We were just folk talking to other folk. In an effort to diversify their product however, in no small part as a result of people’s increased useage of Facebook as a business forum, we’ve seen a fairly obvious drift towards its current incarnation. Needing the legal names of people is just another step in that same direction – ironically it is also a step away from why Facebook became so successful as a business platform.
      The control over what people could and couldn’t see/find out about you was what made it a success. With so litle ability to control your own personal information access (for example, in Australia even though my parents have made their home phone a privately listed number – meaning that it doesn’t show up in Yellow Pages or that sort of thing and can’t just be googled or something – charitable organisations are excempt from that, and anyone who can get access to voting registration is also about to bypass the private listing) in everday life and to a far greater extent online, the ability to personally control that information but still function was likely a crucial part of the initial success of Facebook.

  • Katmandu2

    Unless it’s changed in the past few years, Facebook -does- want you to use your legal name. And a legit phone number sometimes for account verification.

    “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. – See more at:
    http://wildhunt.org/2014/10/the-facebook-name-controversy-safety-security-and-self-identify.html#sthash.fYTbQkkR.dpuf
    “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. – See more at:
    http://wildhunt.org/2014/10/the-facebook-name-controversy-safety-security-and-self-identify.html#sthash.fYTbQkkR.dpuf

  • mysticserpent007

    I have to wonder about the mentality of the ones that do the reporting.

    If they’re not informants, at best they must be bitter, miserable people if not outright dangerous.

  • Dantes

    One of the 5035236 reasons why I am not on Fecesbook.