I don’t believe Facebook’s insistence that it’s sticking with its supposed policy of requiring users to give their real names.
In violently homophobic countries, such a policy would be devastating for LGBTI people, but it’s not actually in force there. Many LGBTI people can only use Facebook under assumed names, and that’s what they do, because doing otherwise would put their lives at risk.
Nor would Facebook benefit from widespread enforcement of that policy in anti-gay countries. The company would justifiably become the focus of terrible publicity if forcing LGBTI people to identify themselves led to their murder by anti-gay Facebook trolls.
The policy might work in the United States, where drag queens have appealed unsuccessfully to be allowed to continue using their stage names, but in many countries Facebook benefits only from keeping that policy on paper, without strict enforcement.
Nevertheless, BuzzFeed reported today:
A Facebook spokesman has confirmed that the company’s controversial policy requiring users to give their real names applies even in countries where police are known to be monitoring the network to enforce laws against homosexuality.
The real-name policy is “a policy for everyone that uses Facebook,” spokesman Andrew Souvall told BuzzFeed News.Though officials in countries like Egypt are known to be monitoring the network partly to enforce anti-LGBT laws, Souvall said, Facebook believes the policy is important to keeping users safe.
“Having people use the names they use in their everyday life on Facebook makes them more accountable, and also helps us root out accounts created for malicious purposes, like harassment, fraud, impersonation and hate speech.”
Souvall has it backward.
Harassment, blackmail, and hate speech will increase if that policy is enforced more broadly, because the policy makes many malicious uses of Facebook possible. For examples from Kenya, Cameroon and Zimbabwe, see the “Related articles” section below for incidents of online harassment and blackmail based on information found on Facebook and gay dating sites.
Also today, Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, apologized in a Facebook post to “the affected community of drag queens, drag kings, transgender, and extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community.”
He described a more flexible policy that would not “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.” That may satisfy drag queens in the United States, but it does not remove the danger that LGBTI Facebook users would face in anti-gay countries if they identified themselves with “the authentic name they use in real life.”
Cox’s full statement is below.
- Facebook Requires LGBT People To Use Real Names Even In Countries Where Homosexuality Is A Crime. (BuzzFeed)
- Cameroon police free accused gay-bashing blackmailer
- Gay in Cameroon: Police accuse blackmail victim (76crimes.com)
- Zimbabwe’s new police powers provoke fear of more blackmail (76crimes.com)
- Gays in Cameroon, beware this blackmailer
- Blackmail and ambushes in Cameroon’s LGBTI community (76crimes.com)
- Troubles in Kenya — blackmail and stoning of gay men
Statement by Chris Cox, as reported by the Huffington Post
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.
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.
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.
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.
(This post was updated on Oct. 1 to include Cox’s statement.)