Economy

The Truth Behind Facebook’s Real Name Policy

CREDIT: Eric Risberg, AP

Facebook has a real name problem.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence this week regarding the company’s strict “real name” policy, which requires users to use their legal name, or some semblance of it, and has controversially exposed members of the LGBT community and others just trying to escape online harassment as a result.

Harassment and controversy aside, the social network’s real name policy chips away at the common belief that communication is best facilitated through alter egos and pseudonyms. Rather that anonymity is a barrier to true global communication when users inconsistently brand themselves across the Web. For example, being James B. Smith to the Department of Motor Vehicles and on Facebook but Jimmy Smooth or Bart Sampson in other corners of the Web.

In a Q&A Tuesday, Buzzfeed journalist Alex Kantrowitz asked Zuckerberg if he was going to end the “real name” practice because, “people in the trans community consider this discriminatory and even argue it puts their lives at risk.”

Zuckerberg’s response, while appreciatively hitting some major marks, somehow lacked the clarity and assurance for which some have been searching:

This is an important question. Real names are an important part of how our community works for a couple of reasons.

First, it helps keep people safe. We know that people are much less likely to try to act abusively towards other members of our community when they’re using their real names. There are plenty of cases — for example, a woman leaving an abusive relationship and trying to avoid her violent ex-husband — where preventing the ex-husband from creating profiles with fake names and harassing her is important. As long as he’s using his real name, she can easily block him.

That is true. Pew Research found that half of all online harassment victims didn’t know who their attackers were. The vast and beautifully distracting internet has given people quick means of communication under anonymous, pseudonymous, or legally verified identities. Such fluidity has given rise to behavior such as trolling, bullying, online stalking and harassment that could not or would not be easily done in person under one’s physical identity.

What Zuckerberg’s response misses is that using a “real name” can also negatively affect victims of harassment. In late June, Guardian editor and journalist Laurie Penny was kicked off Facebook for using a pseudonym that she claims to use as protection from online harassment.

People use Facebook to look up friends and people they meet all the time. This is easy because you can just type their name into search and find them. This becomes much harder if people don’t use their real names.

That said, there is some confusion about what our policy actually is. Real name does not mean your legal name. Your real name is whatever you go by and what your friends call you. If your friends all call you by a nickname and you want to use that name on Facebook, you should be able to do that. In this way, we should be able to support everyone using their own real names, including everyone in the transgender community. We are working on better and more ways for people to show us what their real name is so we can both keep this policy which protects so many people in our community while also serving the transgender community.

Under the policy, Facebook has repeatedly rejected user profiles for fake-sounding names like “Batman,” and disabled profiles of drag queens and other LGBT community members because their performance or stage name didn’t match their ID. The company later apologized for the matter.

Facebook does have a financial stake in people’s identities. The company mines user activity for clues into who people are, their desires, and ultimately what they can be sold through ads. Ads generate 69 percent of Facebook’s revenue total revenue — $3.54 billion. Moreover, Facebook’s whole marketing strategy is inextricably hinged to the idea that users project their real or authentic identities — making it especially valuable.

Despite bad precedent, Facebook firmly stands behind real name policy as a means of protecting users. Facebook policy director Monika Bickert told ThinkProgress “We want people to share knowing whom they’re speaking with and that they are accountable,” for the content they share or the words they speak.

That assurance of authenticity relies on Facebook’s reporting system. “We allow the community to report someone they think is using a fake name,” Bickert said. A Facebook employee, not an algorithm, looks at the report, follows up with the individual, and asks for identification — a government ID such as a driver’s license or two non-government IDs such as a bus pass, library card or piece of mail.

Bickert emphasized Facebook’s personal review of potentially fake accounts, saying the practice was essential to making sure users felt heard. “One report leads to review,” she said, regardless of whether it’s a threat of self-harm, bullying, or name related. “Our policies are applied without any sort of bias,” emphasizing that reviews occur regardless of how many reports are filed, or who files them.

Knowing that someone is taking a Facebook conduct report seriously will likely continue to come at the inconvenience of those who get tripped up by Facebook’s reporting system, and could also cause some to quit the site altogether. But the real name policy — and the personal review system that drives it — aren’t likely to go away.

Bickert echoed Zuckerberg’s sentiments saying they want to preserve the reporting policy so consumer concerns are actually taken into consideration, and any changes would be made to how people are treated if their account is flagged. There will always be room to improve how the company handles those who get caught up in the system, she said. So far the company has changed the messaging and no longer automatically locks people out of their accounts once they’ve been reported.

“People feel more comfortable sharing or reaching out knowing that you are the person you say you are,” Bickert said.