Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. Authentic defined by Facebook standards, of course. Users are required to provide the name they use in real life; the reasoning for this is that, that way, you always know who you’re connecting with and apparently this helps keep the online community safe. Now the name I use in “real life” and what most people call me by may not be my given name, rather a pseudonym and according to the social network this can’t possibly be what I use in real life. So I’m left with five Facebook friends, because no-one can find me.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, once said using a Facebook alias shows a “lack of integrity”. Personally I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. There are many reasons to want to use a different name, for example, political activists, victims of harassment/crimes and people in sensitive professions, like teachers.

I recently read an article about how Facebook exposes domestic violence survivors the opening statement alone brought about many upsetting feelings. “Lily hid from her ex for more than 20 years, but he found her because Facebook forces even women who need anonymity to use their real names”. I’m not sure if I was just really pissed off at Facebook’s lack of consideration or if I was feeling helpless because the ex found Lily. Either way this was not on. I have worked closely with the team who formed part of APC End Violence project; I know how the research findings were disseminated etc. There is no way the Facebook team cannot know about its existence.

Despite their public apologies, Facebook still displays an unwillingness to change this policy; this may be stemming in financial comfort (my identity, their income). The real name policy is exposing intimate partner violence survivors who have been trying to hide from their abusers. It’s better for their data tracking to know exactly who we are so the metadata they get matches a real person. Some people use Facebook as an escape from the societal constructs that surround them. There may have been some comfort in the concept of being whoever you wanted to be, to be the real you. Society puts so much pressure on individuals for them to meet a certain criteria to be deemed normal. For most, social media is the deviation, now this is also being tainted.

It’s really not that hard to consult some activists to help input into the policies. We really don’t want anything except for online safety. We’ve already proven that online violence happens. Technology-related violence against women indicates that there are limits of both sexual and technological citizenship. Users are now at the mercy of technologies of the state and can’t decide on the nature of their own lives, desires and bodies. The End Violence research found that most women face violence that extends from online spaces to their offline worlds. Harassment and stalking often leads to physical violence. What is needed is a review of legislation relating to VAW, privacy and security. Facebook recently suspended the profiles of drag queens whose pages were under their stage names. A recent article posted on GenderIT.org explains how drag queens felt obligated to change their names.

Amanda Sparks had a similar experience: “Facebook blocked my account, saying I was using a false name. Because I was afraid of losing my profile, at the first warning I changed my name to the one on my ID document.”

The three drag performers, the Brazilian website says, are now using their drag profiles with their “childhood” names and their stage names in brackets. At the same time they each have a “personal account” with the name on their identity document, without the pseudonym. “Facebook only lets people have one page each,” said Amanda Sparks, “so I’m afraid someone will report me and I’ll lose one of my two accounts.”

We often have conversations about how frustrated we are about needing to use Facebook to reach people and to keep our work on Facebook’s radar. Even though we know all too well the gaps in Facebook’s policies especially the risks to women’s privacy yet we still can’t help but log on and reveal our lives, participating in a system we dislike. A colleague of mine brought up two points for consideration, which I now leave with you.

  • Facebook doesn’t apply its policies evenly across the globe. Only five countries have 56 custom options for describing one’s gender. So how can we ensure that FB policies aren’t just changed in the US to appease this group of activists?

  • We also have to wonder about the social network’s morals when it recognises gender diversity while continuing to censor the activities of cyber activists, such as the posting of photos of naked breasts or images involving menstruation or women’s genitals.

“Legal names are not real names they are just given names!” – Hvale Vale

Image by Quinn Dombrowski used under Creative Commons license.

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