By Nadia Kayyali
OPINION People are disappearing. At least, that’s how it feels on Facebook. Since the suspension of drag queen and activist Sister Roma’s account, more and more users (including drag kings and queens, burlesque performers, and trans people) are getting reported. They’re either dropping off Facebook, or complying with Facebook’s demands — by using “legal” names unrecognizable to their communities.
As much as some of us are slightly ashamed to admit how much we rely on Facebook, we can’t escape how much we use social media these days. Losing access to Facebook means missing invitations to birthday parties and political rallies. It means missing important announcements from friends and family. It can even mean losing contact with some people altogether.
As Sister Roma and others pointed out in a meeting with Facebook officials last week, the consequences of losing the ability to use Facebook with a chosen name are far worse for some. For trans women, who make up 72 percent of the victims of anti-LGBTQ homicide, being forced to reveal their birth names can be deadly. Teens like Daniel Pierce, who captured the violent reaction of his family members to his decision to come out, may want to hide from abusive families — while relying on social media for support.
In fact, the consequences of Facebook’s policy are huge for many groups of users. Facebook is both an important tool and a dangerous one. Being able to use it with a pseudonym is key for many people. But Facebook doesn’t agree.
Facebook states that it requires users to “provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.” Mark Zuckerberg stated four years ago: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Many people disagree — but Facebook seems committed to maintaining this policy.
Google+ abandoned its real name policy recently, after one of its lead engineers stated: “We thought [abandoning our real names policy] was going to be a huge deal: that people would behave very differently… After watching the system for a while, we realized that this was not, in fact, the case.”
But what’s really absurd about the policy is this: It isn’t even designed very well to do what it’s supposed to. Facebook’s enforcement team isn’t scouring the site looking for people who don’t comply with the policy. Instead, people get their accounts shut down when someone reports them. So with or without the policy, anyone can create a profile with any name they want. And anyone can be reported if they engage in abusive behavior.
The only thing the policy really does is to allow people to anonymously target others, by reporting them. In 2010, a spree of removals targeted accounts with one thing in common: All were critical of Islam. There have likely been other such instances that haven’t received media attention, too.
This is also not the first time Facebook has been confronted over its policies. Digital rights organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACCESS have been “loudly opposed to Facebook’s ‘real names’ policy for years.”
So is Facebook simply determined to hold on to its policy out of stubbornness? Despite temporarily restoring some users’ accounts, Facebook hasn’t offered any long-term solution. With such a flawed policy, a refusal to change it doesn’t seem logical. Instead, it seems as though Facebook has decided that with 1.3 billion users, it can afford to lose a few.
Perhaps Facebook will take Zuckerberg’s more recent words about its policy to heart: “I definitely think we’re at the point where we don’t need to keep on only doing real identity things. If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden.” Maybe Facebook will recognize that the real burden of the policy ends up falling on communities that have already been unfairly burdened, by discrimination, violence, and political repression. It’s time for Facebook to abandon its real name policy for the outdated, ineffective relic that it is.
Nadia Kayyali is an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.