What do drag queens, burlesque performers, human rights activists in Vietnam and Syria, and Native Americans have in common? They have all been the targets of "real names" enforcement on Facebook. And despite reports from the media last year that seemed to indicate that Facebook has "fixed" the issue, they’re still being targeted.
The account suspension of Lakota woman Dana Lone Hill got some media attention earlier this week. Lone Hill has had a very similar experience to other users who’ve been booted of the site for name policy violations—with one important difference.
Last year, when drag queens were affected by the policy, they got messages saying it looked like they weren’t using their "real names." Member of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and activist Sister Roma stated that she "was instructed to log in and forced to change the name on my profile to my 'legal name, like the one that appears on your drivers' license or credit card.'"
Now, however, Facebook’s language has changed. Instead of being told that she needed to use her "legal name," Lone Hill got a message from Facebook saying it looked like she wasn’t using her "authentic name," and that Facebook would "like to work with [her] to verify the name that best represents [her] identity."
In response to drag queens’ complaints last year, Facebook has slightly changed its policy, as demonstrated by the reference to "authentic names" instead of "real names." In October, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer Chris Cox stated that Facebook’s policy "is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life," not that everyone needs to use a legal name. Facebook has also expanded the ways people can prove their identity. And while these are small steps forward, the irony of Facebook suspending the accounts of Native Americans for honoring their heritage by using traditional names under an "authentic name policy" is pretty huge, to say the least.
Lone Hill isn’t the only Native person who has been affected. As Aura Bogado at Colorlines points out: "The company appears to have been questioning certain Native users since at least 2009,when it deactivated Parmelee Kills The Enemy’s account. More recently, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Facebook deleted a number of Native accounts." She’s referring to the takedown of Shane Creepingbear’s account.
These takedowns illustrate the continued problems with Facebook’s policy. As we pointed out last year, Facebook would be much better off if it simply stopped requiring verification of names at all. But if it won’t commit to doing that, there are still other steps it could take.
First, the enforcement process itself remains problematic. Facebook should not put users into the position where they have to submit ID without warning. Users should still be able log in to their account after being reported. This would give users a chance to warn their friends that their profile may become inactive and to download their account’s content— especially important for users who’ve put a lot of content on the site or who use it a lot.
Facebook should also have a clear appeals process. As the many users who’ve been locked out of their accounts in recent months will point out, that simply doesn’t exist at this point.
Finally, Facebook needs to look at its reporting process. Some background: Facebook doesn’t police names itself. It relies on reports from other users. That’s why Creepingbear was correct when he asked "the real question is… Who reported us!?!?!!?!!????"
In the past, Facebook groups have been created specifically for the purpose of reporting accounts, and in Vietnam government supporters have organized reporting sprees against political activists. Drag queens continue to notice specific groups being reported en masse, for example drag queens in a specific city that all know each other, or burlesque performers who’ve all performed at a specific show.
Reporting sprees should be treated as abusive behavior. They could be prohibited in Facebook’s terms of service. Facebook could also institute controls on how reporting happens—for example, flagging accounts that make more than a small number of complaints for review, or putting a limit on how many reports any one account can make in a day.
Whatever solutions Facebook finds, its clear they need to be instituted now. Perusing the list of people who’ve been targeted for names enforcement, there’s one thing every group has in common. They are somehow outside the mainstream. As Creepingbear points out, “There’s been a long history of Native erasure and while Facebook might not be enacting it with that intention, it’s still a part of that long history of people erasing native names. It’s part of the violence against native people in general.”
He's right, and his comment goes for other groups who've been affected by the policy, too. Without putting more controls on how people can report profiles, Facebook has given any user the ability to decide that they are the arbiter of someone else’s name—even when that name represents centuries of cultural tradition, as it does for Native Americans, or belonging in an adopted family for marginalized people, as it does for drag queens.
As for Dana Lone Hill, she was locked out of her account for nearly a week despite the fact that she did provide documentation right away. She says she was asked for more: “credit cards, Social Security numbers, stuff I’m not comfortable sending.” Ultimately, her account was restored—after a few news articles were written. And no one should have to rely on media attention to get Facebook to deal with its broken name policy.