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25 June 2015

Is Facebook right to insist on your real name – and what counts as a “real name” anyway?

New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny has been removed from the site for using a pseudonym - but, like many others, she feels that the step is necessary to avoid abuse and to guard her privacy.  

By Barbara Speed

What’s your name on Facebook?

I don’t use my real name there. Frankly, I don’t want any of you to be able to look me up. But the very act of admitting that here could mean that my account will be suspended. Facebook, since its inception, has always had a strict “authentic name” policy – which the site can enforce by asking you to provide proof of ID. (If you don’t, your account will be suspended.)

Yesterday afternoon, New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny was locked out of her account “in the middle of a conversation” she was having with her partner. She then received a message saying the account could only be reinstated if she provided documents proving that her name on the site, a pseudonym, was “authentic”.

A Facebook spokesperson told me that the policy “makes people accountable for what they say”, and “prevents people from hiding behind an anonymous name to bully, harass and taunt others”. The problem is that the site usually only spots pseudonymous accounts if they are reported by another user. So for a prominent feminist – who is already more likely to be doxxed and abused if her Facebook profile is found – a pseudonym makes sense, but it is also a “trophy” if anti-feminist campaigners uncover it and force her account to be suspended. 

Those who use a different name online because they are worried about their family or other people finding them, for example transgender teenagers, are also vulnerable. Penny also names “queer people” and “those fleeing violence” as examples of those who also more likely to be targeted and locked out.

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Then, of course, there’s the wobbly nature of “authenticity” when it comes to identity. In 2011, Chinese writer Michael Anti was blocked from the site for not using his birth name Zhao Jing, even though he received a degree from Harvard under his new name. In September 2014, a group of US drag queens challenged the site after some received emails saying they could not use their performance names on the site. Facebook recommended they open up “fan pages” instead.

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Native Americans, meanwhile, have been blocked for using their real names on the site – Lance Browneyes, from South Dakota, was forced to send over ID to prove he was using his real name. Facebook then took the executive decision to list him as Lance Brown.

These disputes around naming on social media sites in general, but Facebook in particular, are known as the “Nym wars” (for pseudonym). In response to repeated outcry from affected communities, Facebook has made some moves to improve its policy. In October last year it apologised to the drag performers who had been removed, and chief product officer Chris Cox explained that the site wants to avoid anonymity, while offering users some flexibility in their naming. He told The Guardian:

The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma [one of the drag queens], that’s Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that’s Lil Miss Hot Mess.” 

Users can now confirm their chosen name in two steps: by providing a piece of mail in that name, then an ID (which can use a different name) which cross-references other information, such as date of birth.

Penny wasn’t offered any leeway in terms of her account, as the pseudonym – “a version of the real name of the journalist who went under the pseudonym Nellie Bly” – isn’t one she uses in real life. She will return to the site using the name Laurie Penny because, as she told me by email, she “has no choice”:

Facebook has made itself mandatory for participation in modern social and professional life. I need a Facebook profile so that I can carry on doing my work as a journalist and staying in touch with friends as I travel – because that’s where all the people are…. Like many users, I really feel like I’m being held hostage.”

Facebook’s updated policy doesn’t account for the many reasons why people may use a pseudonym online, but not elsewhere. Penny told me she used the pseudonym to avoid harassment:

Thanks to this change, I’ll be at more risk of that sort of abuse, which is sadly a part of my daily life as a woman who writes about politics. Facebook is clearly prioritising their bottom line over the safety of their users.”

She adds that it is odd that Facebook has decreed that she must be called “Laurie Penny” on the site, because that is not her birth name anyway.

A spokesperson acknowledged to me by email that the site has “more work to do”, and that improvements to the naming policy will be “prioritised”. The company is in a difficult position: people use Facebook in a more intimate way than other social networks, and its changes are aimed at reducing abuse and harassment. But in doing so, it risks making them worse.

The list of those who might wish to avoid identification on the site for personal or professional is endless: teachers, sex workers, victims of stalking, those running from an abusive partner. With their current policies, Facebook, as a near-necessary form of communication in the modern world, runs the risk of cutting off those most in need of support from their online networks.