I am one of many casualties of Facebook’s recently rejiggered “authentic name” policy, wherein anonymous users can report a name as fake and trigger a verification process. Part of the motivation is stopping the proliferation of celebrity imposter accounts and profiles made for pets. But it’s also allowed Facebook to shutter the accounts of real people, based on “authenticity.” What does “authentic” mean, though? It’s both confusing and contextual, because identity itself is confusing and contextual.
Despite those complexities, Facebook believes it can determine authenticity for you.
Right now, the policy defines authentic as the name you “use in real life.” It’s a policy that has existed as long as Facebook has, though it’s (ironically) been fluidly defined over time. Aside from the complexity of identity, the policy is haphazardly enforced at best. At worst, it’s dangerous and discriminatory, and has demonstrably and repeatedly been used to target people who often already are marginalized and vulnerable.
“By controlling the identity of the speaker with this policy, Facebook has the effect of both reducing speech and eliminating speakers from the platform altogether. This is a particularly concerning move to the ACLU because forums like Facebook serve as the modern-day equivalent of the public square for a lot of communities,” says Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties policy attorney with the ACLU’s Northern California chapter. “Our speech right, under the federal and California constitutions, is expansive and it doesn’t stop at the door to a building or a website’s login page.”
Driver’s License and Registration, Please
I’ve been going by the first name “Nads”—a nickname my friends, family, and colleagues all use, but does not exist on any official paperwork. If your identity is challenged and you want your account back, it’s your responsibility to prove who you are. There is no presumption of innocence. Verifying your identity could mean sending Facebook documents like a driver’s license, passport, or birth certificate—the kinds of things everyone should be reluctant to hand over to anyone. If the name doesn’t match your username, Facebook can change it.
Of course, many times the name you use in real life won’t match official documents. If you’re transgender, for example, or use your drag identity on Facebook, or simply don’t go by that legal name anymore, you might be using a name that’s 100 percent authentic but isn’t listed on legal paperwork.
Because the disconnect between one’s legal name and common name is a reality for many people, Facebook recently expanded the paperwork users can submit. The intent is to make this part of the verification process easier, while still enforcing Facebook-approved “authenticity.” The new documents include mail, medical records, and library cards—but at least one of them has to include your photo and your birthday.
My library card has a nice painting on it. What does yours have on it? Do you even have one?
Public Menace #1 Million
When the screen inviting you to submit your documents pops up, Facebook offers this explanation: “We ask everyone on Facebook to use the name they go by in everyday life so friends know who they’re connecting with.” Asking a few trusted contacts to verify someone’s authenticity should clear up any confusion, no documents required. Facebook says that’s not a solution it’s pursuing at this time.
Instead, the new party line is, “Having people use their authentic names helps protect our community from dangerous interactions.”
Put simply, the company is conflating authenticity with accountability. That’s not unreasonable. Facelessness can beget some pretty disgusting behavior (of course it’s worth noting anonymity and pseudonymity are not the same things), and it makes sense that people would behave themselves when their identities are attached to their actions. But behavior on the Internet is fraught and murky, with some suggesting malicious behavior actually has very little to do with anonymity.
Facebook has not provided any data suggesting the authentic name policy is reducing online behaviors such as bullying and harassment. If the data are supportive, why not share it? And if the behaviors are the problem, why not simply police that and not the names? It feels like the company is using a sledgehammer when what it needs is a scalpel.
Lastly, if authenticity is so important for maintaining a safe environment, why not require ID from everyone at sign up? Even now, it’s totally possible to create a Facebook account with a totally bogus name. Speaking to this, Facebook says it likes to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
That is, until it takes the word of some anonymous user over yours.
Furioser and Furioser: I, Robot
Even if I weren’t opposed to sending verification and justifying some anonymous jerk’s identity challenge, I won’t be able to reopen my account under my real name, or even the name Facebook is asking me to verify, for safety concerns (more on that shortly). If I ever do get my account back, it will need a new name. So, I decided to take the company at its word and test how well the following statement reflected reality:
“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,” Chris Cox said, back in October.
First, I tried to appeal the suspension of my account.
Then I reported that my account was hacked (I figured “hacked by Facebook” should qualify).
When neither of those things worked, I went on a bit of a Twitter rant, and after a few days of being abjectly ignored, ended up directly asking Facebook’s account (staffed by someone with the initials “RM”) if they could connect me with an actual person.
Finally, I decided to report that I was “having some trouble logging in.” Facebook again asked for ID. I replied saying I would send no such thing. And then, a real email! From a nice person named Terry.
But Terry didn’t seem to get it.
It was clear that I had two options: Submit ID, or surrender. I kindly replied, again, that I would not be submitting ID, and noted that furthermore, my username did not fit into any of those categories. I had two simple requests.
Terry completely missed the point.
Not once, but twice.
At this point, I was convinced Terry was a bot, and as of this filing, have not heard anything in response to my request for a seven-day grace period and release from digital purgatory. (I did learn that Terry is not, in fact a robot, but a person.) In fact, my case has been closed.
All I’ve gotten for my troubles are nearly two dozen emails from Facebook informing Nads about everything she’s missing out on by not logging in, and a request for feedback about my experience.
A Rose By Any Other Name: The Case for Pseudonymity
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this is that the person who flags your account is afforded more privacy than you are. Even when it’s a matter of personal safety, Facebook will not reveal the accuser.
“There’s no real accountability there, which is ironic given that they say this is about accountability,” says Lil Miss Hot Mess, a San Francisco drag queen and an organizer of the #MyNameIs campaign, which grew from a targeted attack last year on Facebook users going by their drag names.
The last name on my account was not Drake. I started out as Nads Nads, and at one point, in response to an early identity challenge, I verified myself simply by adding a middle initial—I became Nads N Nads, and stayed that way for years. The reason I’ve been pseudonymous is to protect my safety from stalkers. When one of them would find me on Facebook, I would change my last name and make sure my security settings were tight.
The truth is, sometimes a pseudonym is the only protective measure some users can take. Your Facebook profile name, photo, and banner image are always public. There’s no way to make this information accessible to verified friends only, and sometimes that’s all it takes to end up in a world of trouble. Take, for example, a gay man living somewhere where homosexuality is still a crime, who uses Facebook to connect with a support group. Or maybe your sister is a survivor of domestic violence and has an obsessive abuser. Maybe you’re a mental health worker who needs to stay hidden from patients. Or a teacher maintaining a delicate personal-professional boundary with students.
Or maybe you’re like me, and are simply concerned for your safety. When Facebook took one user’s pseudonym away, an abuser showed up to events that person had RSVP’d to before the name was changed. In response, Facebook offers guidelines, developed in partnership with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, for people who need to keep their profiles as private as possible.
That organization has stated that, “We believe Facebook’s authentic name policy minimizes abusers’ ability to misuse Facebook as a platform to further harass and harm victims. In addition, Facebook’s privacy controls and other tools allow survivors to continue to use Facebook so they can stay connected with friends and family.”
The guidelines aren’t bad, and if I ever get my profile back—with a new name—I will work through them like a checklist. However, to circumvent the permanently public nature of profile photos, the guidelines include the suggestion to “use a generic profile or cover photo.”
That actually removes authenticity from a person’s profile. Why not use a generic name instead?
What’s in a Name?
As it stands, the authentic name policy too often is used as a tool of harassment, and Facebook continues allowing that to happen.
The fake name reporting process is opaque and imperfect. Facebook has said it does not use algorithms to crawl through usernames and instead relies on snitches. When an account is flagged, the company says a real person with two thumbs looks into the report and decides whether to lock the account and request documents. Unfortunately, this means a lot of legitimate, legal names often end up flagged.
Like so many other norms that have the potential to primarily disenfranchise everyone except straight white guys, this “authentic name” policy favors a certain type of user: Someone without a fluid identity, who can use their name online without fear—and as we’ve repeatedly seen, someone whose name doesn’t sound “weird” to a Facebook employee’s ears.
Names like Chase Nahooikaikakeolamauloaokalani Silva. Names like Lance Browneyes, Shane Creepingbear, and Dana Lone Hill, who were among many Native Americans targeted earlier this year when Facebook employees failed to recognize that their beautiful names were, in fact, real. For a while, the company forced Browneyes to go by “Lance Brown,” and made Chase use “N” instead of his middle name.
Closing the Public Square and Limiting Free Expression
With a global reach of roughly 1.4 billion users, Facebook is more than just a bottomless pit of selfies. The American Civil Liberties Union argues it has become the modern equivalent of the town square, which historically has been the place where people went to converse and exercise their right to speak freely. By imposing barriers to entry—and blatantly excluding some people—Facebook is limiting freedom of expression. That is its prerogative, of course—the Constitution bars the government from infringing upon free expression, but says nothing about anyone else doing so. But you have to wonder if Facebook really wants to be seen as an opponent to free speech.
“The tradition of free speech in the United States is an expansive one, and one that is welcoming of speakers of all identities,” says Cagle. “There’s so many diverse identities in the world and individuals should be able to, and encouraged, to express themselves through the identities that they want.”
I actually miss my friends’ photos of their kids, the status updates about nothing in particular. The bemusing pro-life, anti-Obama rants that some of my Republican friends go on. I miss the photos from vacations, the silly dog videos. I even miss birthday notifications.
What Facebook has done is create a system that forces compliance or isolation. And worst of all, it places the power with harassers—as if the Internet needed more of that.