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Online Life

Facebook will make it easier to use the “name people know you by.”

Facebook’s “real name” policy has long attracted scrutiny and controversy. The site does not limit users to being known by their legal names, but does ask its users to identify themselves by “the name they use in real life.” Specifically, Facebook’s policy states that, ”Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you’re connecting with.”

Last fall, users who had their own Facebook profiles shut down launched the #MyNameIs campaign. More recently, The Nameless Coalition — a group of 75 human rights, digital rights, LGBTQ, and women’s rights advocates — sent the company an open letter in October. The letter, among other things, detailed how individuals had been harmed by Facebook’s policies. The Nameless Coalition argued that “Facebook should get rid of its real names policy altogether,” but failing that, the coalition demanded the company to make substantive changes to its policy and processes.  

Unfortunately, for some, the current policy makes Facebook incredibly difficult to use. The LGBTQ community, Native Americans, drag queens, Catholic priests and nuns who go by “Father” or “Sister”, other ethnic minorities, individuals who go by pseudonyms, and other persecuted groups are among those who can find it difficult to abide by Facebook’s “real name” policy.

This past Friday, Facebook responded to the Nameless Coalition’s letter. “[W]e know the current process does not work for everyone. We are working on several improvements, with two goals in mind,” wrote Alex Schultz, a VP for growth and internationalization at Facebook. “First, we want to reduce the number of people who are asked to verify their name on Facebook, when they are already using the name people know them by. Second, we want to make it easier for people to confirm their name if necessary.”

What do those improvements look like in practice? According to Schultz, the new policy will include a process that will “let people provide more information about their circumstances … [which will] help our Community Operations team better understand the situation. It will also help us better understand the reasons why people can’t currently conrm their name, informing potential changes we make in the future.”

Another change is on the reporting side. Previously, it was incredibly simple for any Facebook user to report another user for supposed violations of the “real name” policy. As The Nameless Coalition’s letter argued, individuals who report other users for supposed “real name” policy violations had “no obligation to submit evidence supporting their claim. Any user can file as many reports as they wish, as quickly as they wish, allowing targeted reporting sprees. This has led to unfair application of the policy, and provides people who wish harm upon communities like ours with a dangerous and effective tool.”

Going forward, Facebook will require more evidence from users who report a “real name” policy violation before the company takes action. According to Schulze, “we are building a new version of the profile reporting process that requires people to provide additional information about why they are reporting a profile.”

The changes Facebook is now making will bring about some benefit for marginalized groups. But in the end, these steps leave the policy further committed to a “real name” approach that many of its critics still reject as unfair in principle. As Lisa Vaas writes, “make no mistake, Facebook’s real-name policy isn’t going away. Facebook will still require people to use the name that their friends and family know them by. It has no plans to change that.”

For their part, Facebook believes that their policy makes the platform a safer place. As Schultz notes, “bullying, harassment or other abuse on Facebook is eight times more likely to be committed by people using names other than their own than by the rest of the Facebook community … our analysis showed that the people behind these inauthentic proles were much more likely to be involved in some form of bad behavior.”

The likely future on Facebook is one of compromise — where people can use the names that they’re known by, but where true anonymity is unavailable

Anonymous social platforms are also susceptible to abuse. Take Yik Yak as an example. Just last month, a group of 72 women’s and civil rights groups asked the Department of Education to issue guidance to universities and colleges to “protect students from harassment and threats based on sex, race, color, or national origin carried out via Yik Yak and other anonymous social media applications.” According to those groups, Yik Yak and other anonymous social platforms can be a “megaphone for hate mongering.” By way of illustration, the groups noted an instance where “Yik Yak users sexually harassed a feminist student group by threatening sexual assault and physical harm after individual members spoke out against rape culture and incidents of sexual assault on campus.”

Partly in light of concerns like these, the likely future on Facebook is one of compromise — where people can use the names that they’re known by, but where true anonymity is unavailable. And, as Yik Yak’s rise illustrates, other platforms will allow for a more anonymous (if less accountable) discussion.

External Reading

The Nameless Coalition's Letter

Read The Nameless Coalition's October open letter. Read

Facebook's Response to The Nameless Coalition

Read Facebook's response to The Nameless CoalitionRead

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