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.

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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, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and 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. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.