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Facebook's 'Real Name' Policy Can Cause Real-World Harm for the LGBTQ Community

DEEPLINKS BLOG
September 16, 2014

There are myriad reasons why individuals may wish to use a name other than that which they were born with. For some, these reasons could mean life or death—for example, political dissidents voicing unpopular opinions in places like Syria or Vietnam, or people trying to get away from abusers—while for others, it may still very much be a matter of safety and security. Pseudonyms can enable people to access information, social services, and gain entry to communities while maintaining safety. This is especially true online, where individuals from distributed or marginalized groups can find community, spread awareness of issues they face, and seek information. LGBTQ individuals number among those who rely heavily on the Internet.

That’s why EFF was alarmed to hear that Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy is disproportionately affecting the LGBTQ community—in particular drag queens. Last week, the Daily Dot reported that Facebook was blocking drag performers from using their assumed, or stage names, rather than their legal ones.  Tech journalist Violet Blue also reported on the situation, stating that Facebook was enforcing its ‘real names’ policy, “insidiously outing a disproportionate number of gay, trans and adult performers” and placing them at risk for attacks and harassment.

EFF has long advocated against ‘real names’ policies, arguing in particular that the way these policies are enforced subjects the most vulnerable populations (that is, people with enemies or unpopular opinions) to the most risk because of the ease with which another user can report them and thus have their account suspended.  When a user is reported for using a ‘fake’ name, Facebook will prompt the user to submit their official identification. For pseudonymous users, this is impossible; it also comes with other privacy risks.

While Google Plus gave up their ‘real names’ policy, first allowing certain exceptions then abandoning the policy altogether, Facebook has remained steadfast, despite scant evidence that the policy comes with claimed benefits such as a greater level of “civility” (and some evidence to the contrary).

And while Facebook maintains that this policy applies to every user on their site, in a report from Slate Facebook acknowledged that profile pages are typically only reviewed when “a member of the Facebook community reports it to us,” noting that “in these instances [suspensions of drag queens' accounts], the profiles would have been reported to us.” Assuming that Facebook’s account of the situation is accurate, this would mean that someone (or a group of people) is intentionally targeting drag performers. For non-gender conforming individuals, who are disproportionately attacked offline as well (in June alone, four trans women were murdered), the effects are particularly dangerous.  

One of the loudest voices speaking out against Facebook’s policy is Sister Roma, who belongs to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group that was borne out of political protest. Her identity is not an isolated performance; it’s the very definition of free expression. The Sisters’ work includes “community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment.”

For members of this community, the consequences of bad online policy are real. Sister Roma has stated that she doesn’t want employers or stalkers to be able to find her. Fortunately, and despite the personal risks, she lives in a state that provides legal protections against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual preference; many drag performers don’t, and could very well lose jobs as a result of being “outed” with their drag personas.

More disturbingly, drag performers and others in the LGBTQ community—especially transgender people—often face violent harassment, online and off. Being able to connect a legal name with an online LGBTQ identity makes it much easier for not just stalkers and harassers, but dangerous abusers, to find people offline. And the loss of ability to identify using one’s chosen identity makes it more likely that an individual will simply leave social media, thereby losing an essential source of community and information. As drag performer Olivia LaGrace explains:

Victims of abuse, trans people, queer people who are not able to be safely "out," and performers alike need to be able to socialize, connect, and build communities on social media safely. By forcing us to use our "real" names, it opens the door to harassment, abuse, and violence.

While Facebook offers other ways for individuals to use the service without exposing their ‘real name’—such as creating a Page—many claim that those options fall short. A fan page cannot receive messages, for example. Only certain types of pages can receive messages (to find out how, click here).  According to SFist, another option (for performers, anyway) might be to register a DBA, or “Doing Business As” name with the Small Business Administration that can be presented to Facebook if one’s name is challenged.

These workarounds are inherently unfair to individuals whose desire for relative anonymity is a matter of safety or identity, and useless for those who merely desire to use a pseudonym. While Facebook has agreed to meet with community members and San Francisco Supervisor David Campos after extensive media attention, the company's reaction so far has left much to be desired. And unfortunately, if Facebook doesn't change the policy, some users will be left with very few options.

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