Facebook wants to be one of the few places online where people hiding behind pseudonyms do not control the user experience. It is an anti-anonymity zone, where keeping it real is the rule when it comes to user names.
But what began as a “real name” policy has now been renamed something a little softer. It’s now called the “authentic” name policy, though the details are largely the same.
Despite the fact that the policy has been around almost as long as Facebook itself, complaints from the transgender and drag communities have brought its unintentional consequences into focus. Now, Native Americans are also speaking out about how social media company’s name policy hurts them, too.
Twice now, somebody has reported Shane Creepingbear’s profile as fake. The most recent instance was in October — right around Columbus Day. Creepingbear is his real last name. Facebook, he said, didn’t believe him.
“I started going through the remediation process to prove that I was a real person,” Creepingbear, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, told The Washington Post. “They kept asking me to put in my real name. And they said this doesn’t meet Facebook’s standards.
“I had to send in a photo of my state ID and I had done that before and that was very frustrating for them to demand it again. It just felt really marginalizing.”
— Shane Creepingbear (@Creepingbear) October 14, 2014
Facebook says it doesn’t require people to use their legal names, just the ones they use in real life.
A company spokesman told The Post in a statement that Facebook tweaked its policies over the past several months to offer new options for verifying names. The company, the statement said, is working on “improving” the verification process as a whole.
“Having people use their authentic names makes them more accountable, and also helps us root out accounts created for malicious purposes, like harassment, fraud, impersonation and hate speech,” the statement said. “Over the last several months, we’ve made some significant improvements in the implementation of this standard, including enhancing the overall experience and expanding the options available for verifying an authentic name.”
The process of verifying your “real life” name is policed by company employees and can be made easier if your name happens to be found on some kind of documentation — a state ID, a library card, or a piece of mail, for example.
Native Americans says that human error is built into the system in a number of ways, and the result is a quiet marginalization of their identities.
To begin with, just about anyone can report an account based on the suspicion that someone is using a fake identity. And for that reason, Facebook can sometimes subject users to lengthy and repetitive requests to verify their identities, which can resemble a state of online purgatory.
When someone’s name is reported, a Facebook employee checks to see whether the name seems real — a subjective and apparently fraught process.
Creepingbear suspects that his activity on Facebook pages and groups — where he often talks about race and white supremacy — might have prompted someone to report his name.
“Just seeing that over and over again: Your name wasn’t approved, your name wasn’t approved. … It just reflects on a white supremacist society,” he added.
Even more perplexing is the fact that Facebook allows people to simply change their name to resolve the problem.
Choosing a name that won’t cause someone to “report” your account is one solution. And if someone does report your name, it is up to a Facebook employee to determine whether it seems authentic enough; no documentation is needed to make that determination. Either way, “authenticity” is not guaranteed to be the outcome.
Lance Brown Eyes, for example, can become Lance Brown, or maybe Lance Browneyes.
“They had no issue with me changing my name to a white man’s name, but harassed me and others, forcing us to prove our identity while other people kept whatever they had,” said Lance Brown Eyes, who was eventually allowed to use his full given name on Facebook after he complained. “They let me change my name back, but what about you and all the others they discriminated against? Our people need to know they can fight back. The more of us stand up, they will change.”
In a recent blog post on Last Real Indians, Dana Lone Hill highlighted the case of Lance Brown Eyes along with her own experience with the social network.
— lastrealindians.com (@lastrealindians) February 6, 2015
Lone Hill believed her last name was the same as her father’s, Lone Elk, until she went to high school. She tried to change her name on Facebook to the one on her birth certificate (her mother’s maiden name). Suddenly, she said, she had to prove that she was real:
I switched it back to my mother’s last name and they let me sign on for a few hours, then shut me back out again when I was trying to comment. When I tried to log back in same message as before except they wanted proof of ID. To date I have sent 3 forms of ID, one with a picture, my library card, and a piece of mail in file form. I received a generated message to be patient while they investigate to see if I am a real person.
Lone Hill followed Facebook’s prescribed process, and her account was eventually restored after her story was picked up by the blog Colorlines. It is also worth noting that while you are in the “verification” process, your account will remain suspended until Facebook employees can verify your authentic identity.
But as the flap with the transgender and drag communities illustrated clearly, it is entirely possible for someone’s “authentic” name, or the name they use in everyday life, to never appear in a document — not even on a magazine subscription or a piece of mail.
After transgender and drag groups complained that the policy potentially exposed many of their communities to abuse and marginalization, Facebook apologized but didn’t really change the way the system fundamentally worked.
Even after the recent policy tweaks, the company said in its statement: “We have more work to do, and our teams will continue to prioritize these improvements so everyone can be their authentic self on Facebook.”
Problems for Native Americans, for instance, are baked into some of Facebook’s policies. For example, the company explicitly prohibits using “words, phrases or nicknames in place of a middle name.”
If your name is In Between The Watchers (one of Lone Hill’s friends), you are technically in violation of the policy and may need to submit documentation verifying your identity.
“I just think they have to maybe have more training on what our full names encompass,” Lone Hill said in an interview, adding that she understands why Facebook might want to discourage anonymity on the social network. “We hang on to these names. A lot of [Native Americans] went with Christian last names and lost their names, so we carry these names proudly.
For many Native Americans, being forced to “prove” their identities is more than an inconvenience; it is a form of silencing.
“There’s been a long history of Native erasure and while Facebook might not be enacting it with that intention, it’s still a part of that long history of people erasing native names,” Creepingbear said. “It’s part of the violence against native people in general.”