By Any Other Name? Why the Facebook Real Name Policy Matters

Photo by tomxox / 123RF

No, I’m not going to start waxing un-poetically about roses. I am, however, hoping to continue the conversation being had in many online and offline spaces about identity.

Drag queens and kings, First Nations and indigenous people, domestic violence survivors, political activists in other countries, and trans* people are involved in a very public debate with Facebook about the company’s “Real Name” policy and the way pages are reported for noncompliance with this policy.

The reporting tool currently in place allows people to flag accounts as fraudulent if their owners are not using their legal names. According to the activists of the My Name Is campaign, this is a way to further marginalize the voices of certain groups of people, namely people in the LGBTQ community, Native Americans/indigenous people, and political activists, who may not be able to use their real name for fear of retaliation or because their tribal name is different from their legal name. Meetings began back in the fall of 2014 and received coverage in publications like Vogue.

As Pride month kicked off this month, so did the protests and the continued debate between users and Facebook. The LGBTQ Humanist Council supports the work of the My Name is Campaign to bring greater attention to self-determined identity. The My Name Is Campaign is about more than just an individual’s name on Facebook—it is about the erasure of a community choosing to live a life free of gender stereotypes. The question becomes how to balance this with the need for user accountability online. It’s true that by requiring real names, cyberbullies as well as other criminals, cannot hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. The challenge Facebook and other platforms for digital expression need to meet is how to protect users while respecting that a person’s identity is not fixed nor is an identity solely conferred by government documents. One’s given name can carry the weight of a life and a journey that one may not want to share with the world. Their “real” name is a reminder of the oppression and intolerance they have endured. Caitlyn Jenner’s recent Vanity Fair article and Laverne Cox’s reflection on trans*-related press coverage are bringing the topic of trans* identities to the forefront in a big way.

How do we continue the conversation about identity in the digital age and focus on how to provide spaces for human interaction that are both safe and welcoming to everyone?

And lest we forget, our own Humanist Manifesto III states:

Humanists are concerned for the wellbeing of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

We appreciate Facebook’s willingness to speak with the communities affected and we hope they will find an inclusive solution that balances the need for safety of all with the free expression of self-identity.

What do you think? What’s being said in your community or in the online in the circles in which you travel?

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  • as an atheist who was in a fairly conservative profession, I used an alias on FB that related to the screen names I’d had on previous social media accounts. FB can only detect fake SOUNDING names… usually names with real words thrown in, which is why indigenous people and drag queens get filtered out so frequently. AND the algorithm has a limited vocabulary. So names like Dorid Nudibranchia pass easily.

    Since it really doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, why continue? and anyone can log onto FB under common names, I could easily create a Michael Brewer account, or any other recognizable name.

  • Christine the new Failure!

    I don’t think is an unfair rule. Change your name, contribute breaking the rule until you’re caught, or stop using fb… Fb names can not be even in the realm of the biggest fights for lgbtq folk.
    Side question: If you can be a woman who becomes a man, why can’t you be a man named Katie?

    • Gretchen Rph

      I’m a cis male and a lot of my friends call me Gretchen in everyday real life conversations. That they can’t call me Gretchen on Facebook is just Facebook being in my business.

      • Gretchen Rph

        as I posted above, if they want my legal name on file or a hidden part of my profile as a safeguard in case someone reports me for harassment or threatening harm, that’s fine. But to stick a nametag on my virtual identity “Hi I’m Neal Hicks” well to a lot of my friends, that’s not what they call me.

        • Christine the new Failure!

          Can’t you be, ex. “Neal Gretchen Jones?” Incorporate both names as many people do their Nick names?I have no beef with it, but I use my ownn name, so I may be a bit blind to the issues.

          Also, I think fb is moving toward being a reliable source if identification for ppl. So, it’s in the interest of their official-ness to have only”real”names on the site. If you have signed up for uber, relay rides,airbnb, etc, you’ll see what I mean.

          • brainmist

            Pfft. It’s about advertising dollars. And people with stalkers really don’t want to be reliably identified/ located.

    • tinka3000

      And what about those that don’t want to be found by abusers or bullies or anyone that is making their lives hell? Stay off of FB? Why should they have to? That is still letting the abuser or bully win. One should not have to avoid participating in life because of someone else’s actions. Facebook can be very useful and make it easy to keep in touch with family and friends far away, so why should someone have to lose out on that because they have to hide from one person?

  • Gretchen Rph

    I used the same username on Facebook that I used on FetLife and in a lot of my social circles. All of a sudden with no fanfare and no explanation other than “our rules,” my Facebook account was locked and the condition of getting it unlocked was for me to send them an image of my State-issued ID card. Which I did.

    I’m not really worried who knows my name is Neal Hicks, I’m 52 and could really give a care, but frankly, my usertag in any game or website or bulletin board or whatever should really be up to me. And fine, if Facebook wants to be an intrusive prick about it, they could have easily just stored my legal name on file somewhere and that would accomplish the accountablity aspect if someone reported me for some criminal activity or credible threat or harassment. That’s no justification for making my visible username into my legal ID name. You want to know my legal identity, fine…but they should have left my Gretchen username untouched.

    • Eley Jadore

      I totally agree. I said the same thing. If Facebook wanted to have my legal name on file *for accountability purposes*, i would have been absolutely okay with it. But to force me to publicly display my real name is unacceptable and unnecessary.

  • Greybeard Oldways

    I have a religious name that has been blocked by FB. All the people in my church and affiliated religious organizations only know me by my religious name. Having a religious name is common in my religion and for the clergy of many other religions. The FB policy is offensive, discriminatory, anti-religious, bull headed, and wrong.

    • You are right. How many Catholic nuns use their real names?

  • Bobby Salvin

    So many people hide behind internet anonymity to be racist, sexist or bigoted that I support the Facebook real name policy. I think it is good to have a forum where people are who they really are. It seems people can be anonymous on most other sites, so its important there is at least one site where that is not the case.

    • Elizabeth Ann Ciccantelli

      Me too.

    • cecilia

      are you SO naive to assume people CAN’T make racist and moronic statements under their legal name?

      I have hundreds of facebook accounts blocked because I saw racist and stupid comments. And all the names “looked” real.

      The main problem with this idiotic “real name” policy is that it gives ALL the power to bullies and THEY control the conversation

      • Bobby Salvin

        I’m so naive? Why do you think the Klan hide their identity? I’ve interacted with a lot of bigots on the internet who are emboldened by their anonymity. They are free to say things that are socially unacceptable and don’t want others to know they believe.

        Going by your real identity means you take responsibility for what you say.

        • cecilia

          unfortunately, your viewpoint will never explain all the people I see posting stupidities under names which appear to be real.

          Your thesis MIGHT have been somewhat true back in the 1990’s but today the Internet is so ubiquitous that most people have no compulsion to type whatever nonsense comes out of their tiny little heads. And their real names being in full view doesn’t stop them one iota

          • Bobby Salvin

            The difference is that people who write stupid or offensive things under their real names own what they say.

          • cecilia

            no they don’t. they still SAY stupid things, it doesn’t stop or embarrass them in the least. How do you figure they “own what they say”??? Do you sue them? Of course not. People type out whatever they like online with zero repercussions. Sure, they get arguments but they like the attention.

            You really don’t understand the problem at all. And neither do the children at facebook which is why THEY are allowing bullies to report anyone and everyone with no consequences.

          • Sister Roma

            We are not trying to use ANONYMOUS names. We are trying to use our authentic identity – believe me, I’m not trying to hide. Even Facebook’s own public statements say that they wish users’ profiles to reflect the names they are known by in everyday life. For me that is Sister Roma. For millions of users it is a name that cannot be proven by an ID. If someone posts offensive, sexist, bigoted or racist comments you can already report them for that, regardless of the name on their profile. In fact, all of the tools for reporting bad behavior are already in place. The only reporting tool that punishes IDENTITY is the “fake” name option.

    • tinka3000

      Some people don’t want to found by people from their past. For some, it’s life or death – literally. Should someone have to be excluded from social media because they have to hide from someone else when using an alias and locking down your account could solve that problem?

      Should someone be forced to use a name that they don’t identify with?

      What about people in certain professions? I know a teacher who uses her first name but not her real last name so that her students can’t find her online. She doesn’t find it appropriate to be friends with her students or for them to know about her private life. (Rejecting their friend requests isn’t as easy as it sounds when you’re dealing with kids who take things personally.) And since Facebook has taken away the ability to be unsearchable, the other option is to use an alias.

      If someone wants to be a jerk online, they are going to be one with or without a real name. If they are really set on being anonymous, it is possible to use a name that sounds legit and won’t get noticed.

    • brainmist

      The FB real name policy is ineffective in preventing people from bullying under a fake name, because:
      1. If the name sounds Anglo enough, it may go undetected as fake.
      2. There’s already a reporting tool for abusive behavior. Punishing behavior makes sense; punishing a name? Does not.
      3. If they have no attachment to the fake name, all they have to do is dump that ID and generate a new one. I have at least 8 e-mail addresses I could use to generate IDs, and those are just what has accumulated….I’m not trying to set up a small army of alts for harassment purposes.
      4. If their intent is to bully someone on Facebook, they can report that person, regardless of whether the name is ‘fake’ or not, and that person then has to jump through hoops to get it back, if they even can. So it gives a tool to the bullies while being ineffective in protecting the bullied.

      • Bobby Salvin

        The rule might be easy to defeat, but the premise of Facebook as a social media forum is that you’re being you. People who want to be anonymous need to go to a different social media forum. Creating a forum where one of the rules is that you’re not anonymous is a perfectly legitimate

        • brainmist

          I’ve been “me” under a certain user ID for 25 years. Remind me, when did Facebook come out? My user ID, and those of many who have chosen a name and stuck with it for decades, is far from anonymous. And it is far more “me being me” than a coincidence of heritage and parental naming of a personality-less blub of baby.

          If Facebook cares about ensuring every user can be legally identified, why not ask for a legal name for records, but allow a user name? And why do they not set their algorithm to target the truly abysmal number of scam/ spam accounts?

          It’s a moot point for me: the more I read up on this issue, the more repellent Facebook became. That they offered protesters some lip service last fall, then went right on screwing people over, even when it was clear some were being maliciously targeted, is absolute hypocrisy. So I dumped Facebook completely. Having been online for 25 years and having created accounts under my online name for most major social media as they’ve come up, I have many, many alternatives.

          But for people who aren’t quite as social-media-savvy, that’s not as easy an option.

    • Would you consider that maybe FaceBook is doing the wrong thing for the right reason? It’s purpose and mission may be admirable, but too many people feel that it is ineffectual and that the problems raised outweigh the desired benefits that are not really being realized.

      I would think that FB would want to have a program that was effective and didn’t create more harm than this policy creates.

    • Eley Jadore

      Dylann Roof was using his real name when he walked into a church and in cold blood murdered 9 innocent people. He was not using a pseudonym. Using your real name does NOT cause you to act more responsibly. That theory has been debunked.

      • ReadLearnThink

        Not for him, but it definitely keeps me from commenting on political or religious posts, especially if the person has their post set to “public.” Sometimes I would like to give information and facts or correct something I see on a religious or political post, but I don’t want it coming through my news feed. I use my real name now, but have often thought I need to have a secondary account with a fake name.

    • Colorful Kent

      But anyone can make up a fake name that seems realistic and post and bully. They don’t check every name only the ones protected anonymous jerks report even if they aren’t bullying. They won’t tell you who is reporting you, and they could be the real bully.

  • IvanaMskaya

    I have been kicked out of FB this Monday without *any* warning, after nearly 8 years being there, never having any issues or problems whatsoever. They suddenly do not seem to like my name anymore. They ask for a copy of either my official Government ID or my birth certificate. Both they will not get. I refuse to be treated as if FB were a self-proclaimed private internet government above the law here in Germany. To even only ask for a copy of a state issued ID is a criminal offense in Germany, and the same goes for copying an ID. Even the Police is not allowed to make an ID copy. No one is. Then there is the simple fact that a legal right for a pseudonym/alias on the internet exists for private, non-public, non-business use by anyone in Germany. If one does have a private closed profile at FB which only friends can seek/find/view one’s pseudonym/alias is protected by the law. FB does not care. Not at all. It is an US company. In Europe it resides in the Republic of Ireland, as do most US internet companies, to avoid taxes which are considerably higher everywhere else in Europe. Another reason: Ireland has the lowest possible kind of data protection laws in Europe. The fact that no matter where in Europe a company resides it has to oblige to the national laws of the member states when it comes to data protection is widely ignored by these companies. And FB too does not care. FB is a monopolist and can afford to ignore the law, it is as simple as that. Try to sue FB in all these issues, good luck.

    In Berlin possibly everyone on FB and elsewhere is now potentially able to get to know the birthnames of 85% of all drag queens and trans people of this city thanks to the arrogance of FB. The remaining 15% will over time get the same offensive and callous treatment i was kindly given this Monday by FB. As there is no alternative to FB which would be worth mentioning and as nearly all communications in the community transpire via FB people stay there, give their ID’s, knowing it is illegal, just to stay part of the game, thus swallow the bitter pill which is forced upon them by FB.

    There were Protests against FB regarding to this policy in the US. Great. Here this had no effect whatsoever. It was in the news, poeple spoke about it and now dear Roma is known here, too (which i personally and honestly deign her from my heart, she earned it by her great work of many years), and that’s mostly it.

    I will not crawl before FB. I have quite a substantial amount of self-esteem left after last Monday, and even if i am now blocked off from nearly all instant community information and communication i will not despair and give in. Life is possible outside that voracious blue chatterbox boredom of a data mining juggernaut, really, there is.

    So, either be in and slowly and painfully devour your dignity, freedom and rights or leave and be redeemed of FB’s imposed impudences and totalitarian goals. I choose the latter, i did not fight and march the last 35 years for LGBT liberation causes to throw myself now on the mercy of an overrated web company to tell me which name i am allowed to use in public and which not. Just strike me pink!

    Ivana Mskaya, Berlin, Germany

    • Eley Jadore

      Sister Roma is really trying for the LGBT community. I follow her on Facebook, she along with Lil Miss Hot Mess, Sister Unity and so many others are really fighting this real name policy and seem to be the only ones doing so with very little help. I am not part of the LGBT community, nor am i a domestic abuse survivor, i am not native american either. I am just a girl who got locked out of her Facebook account for using a pseudonym. Like you, i refused to give them my legal documents. What Facebook is doing is very wrong and i’m wondering why it’s not illegal.

  • ReadLearnThink

    Although I don’t have one, I have thought that I would like to have a separate account with an alias. There are things I would like to comment on, but am hesitant to do on a public forum.