Facebook Responds to Protest Over Real-Name Policy

Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, Calif., was the site of a protest Monday over the social network’s failure to resolve issues with its real-name policy, despite promises to do so last year.

Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., was the site of a protest Monday over the social network’s failure to resolve issues with its real-name policy, despite promises to do so last year.

A group that calls itself The #MyNameIs Campaign was behind the protest, and Mashable and Re/code separately reported that protesters included members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community (including drag queens, burlesque performers and transgender people), as well as Native Americans and victims of domestic violence.

The protestors object to Facebook’s real-name policy, which requires users to use only the legal names on their birth certificates, for numerous reasons, including people who no longer go by their real names, people who are identified solely by their stage names and users trying to hide from stalkers and other abusers.

One of the leaders of the protest, drag queen Sister Roma of drag group The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, told Re/code:

People are still using the fake-name reporting option as a way to target and maliciously bully people they find objectionable for whatever reason. We were trying to get Facebook to understand that for the past nine months, and no significant changes were made. We’ve reached our breaking point.

Last October, Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox issued a lengthy apology, saying in part:

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.

Monday, Facebook vice president of global operations Justin Osofsky and head of global product policy Monika Bickert reacted to the protest with a post on the Facebook Safety page:

The authentic name requirement has defined and distinguished our service from its earliest days. We firmly believe in and are committed to our authentic name policy, and ask that everyone on Facebook use their authentic name on their profile.

Having people use their authentic names helps protect our community from dangerous interactions, like when an abusive ex-boyfriend impersonates a friend to harass his ex-girlfriend, or a high school bully uses a fake name to post hateful comments about a gay classmate.

When people use their authentic names on Facebook they are more accountable for what they say. People can be assured that they’re really connecting with their loved ones, and no-one can hide behind an anonymous name to bully, taunt or say insensitive or inappropriate things. This creates a safer community for everyone.

Last year, we realized that we were making it too hard for people to confirm their authentic identity on Facebook. For various reasons, people had difficulty with the process of verification, and we are sorry to anyone who has been affected by this. So, in consultation with local and national LGBTQ community members and others who provided valuable suggestions and feedback, we’ve made significant improvements in response to some of their concerns:

  • We now provide people in the U.S. access to their account while they verify or update their name. We also offer the option to act immediately or within seven days. We will be expanding this to our global community in the coming months.
  • We expanded the options and documents that people can use to verify their authentic name. People can now verify their name without having to show a legal document in that name. They can confirm their name with things like a piece of mail, a magazine subscription or a library card that include their authentic name.
  • We clarified language throughout our site to make it clear that when we say authentic name, it does not necessarily need to be legal name.

As with all our products, we will continue to review and improve implementation of this policy to make sure it is working as effectively as possible, and will continue our ongoing conversations with members of the Facebook community.

We believe these changes will allow us to provide a better experience for everyone who uses Facebook, and ensure all members of the community can use the names that they use in real life, without sacrificing the safety that is important to us all.

A “rival” social network sought to take advantage of the situation, as Re/code reported that Ello sponsored the buses that transported protesters from San Francisco to Menlo Park, and aided in the creation of signs and banners.

Ello said in an email prior to Monday’s protest, from co-founder and CEO Paul Budnitz:

It’s Pride Day on Ello, and we’re supporting thousands of LGBTQ protesters as they descend on Menlo Park today to protest Facebook’s discriminatory real-name policy.

Facebook claims that deleting and freezing accounts of anyone that refuses to use their real name is about authenticity–but it’s more about money and selling information about you to advertisers.

Ello is a public benefit corporation that doesn’t require real names, which is why our community is safer, more positive, and more tolerant.

Readers: What are your thoughts on Facebook’s enforcement of its real-name policy?

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.