Facebook is making it more difficult to hide behind a username or unique moniker. The company instituted a name policy last year asking users to “use their authentic names [to make] them more accountable."
It sounds like a practical safety measure, but it’s backfiring and triggering outrage—some have even called it discriminatory. And for people like filmmaker Adam “Le Weatherman” Sekuler, it can shut a user out of their account until they prove their identity.
Facebook allows users to report “inauthentic names” to “root out accounts created for malicious purposes like harassment, fraud, impersonation, and hate speech,” a statement from Facebook PR to PubliCola said. (I interviewed a Facebook representative, but he requested that I only quote from a statement he forwarded afterward.)
When a Facebook user files a name complaint, Facebook’s team reviews the reports and determines if it's necessary to force the person to use their real name. The policy is getting pushback—from the queer community to folks like Sekuler who want to post how they please.
“I changed my Facebook name a while back in solidarity with the queer community after a number of drag queens’ pages were shut down [for using alternate names],” Sekuler, the former programmer at Capitol Hill’s Northwest Film Forum said. (Now out of state at film school, Sekuler has a history for getting involved; he was recognized by the city council for his community contributions when he left and NWFF last year, and also lit up the Internet last year when he called attention to Macklemore’s use of anti-Semitic imagery at an EMP event).
“I suppose you might call it my performer name,” Sekuler says of his Facebook moniker. “Le Weatherman seemed like the most appropriate ‘nom de resistance.’ I posted photographs of the sky every day, and it was up for a long time until I was shut out two weeks ago.”
“It’s harder to get [back] into Facebook right now than it is for me to get onto an airplane.”
In order to get his account back, Facebook sent Sekuler to a page that asked for one of three options: a form of government-issued ID, two different forms of ID like a bank statement and social security card, or a government ID with a date of birth and photo (the only option that allows a name differing from your legal name). Sekuler provided us with a screenshot of the form, which requires a file upload to complete the identification process. The process is reminiscent of providing documentation for a new job, which, despite Facebook’s claim to keep all documents confidential, raises privacy concerns. We've got a call in to the ACLU.
UPDATE: The ACLU of Washington's technology and liberty director Jared Friend believes that the policy threatens privacy and anonymous free speech liberties.
"For many people, such as domestic violence survivors who need to remain pseudonymous for their safety or transgender persons whose name does not match their government-issued identification, Facebook’s policies threaten their ability to engage with their communities," Friend told PubliCola. "People should not be forced to choose between being socially excluded and compromising their comfort and safety."
Sekuler explained, “It’s harder to get [back] into Facebook right now than it is for me to get onto an airplane." Since Facebook shut down his initial page, he built another Le Weatherman page where he continued to post pictures of clouds and sunsets—which was shut down again Wednesday, and it's still down today.
For trans Seattle-based musician L Henderson, Facebook’s policy has forced them to undergo three separate name changes. Facebook’s policy is similar to issues that trans and queer people like Henderson face with doctors, banks, and government agencies. Being misnamed has ramifications both on and offline for Henderson, who constantly asserts self-identification.
“Every time I’ve tried to change my name to L, it’s been met with resistance,” Henderson said. “I opted for a few different options until I had to change it to ‘LA’ in order to reactivate my account.”
“I’ve had a hard enough time getting people to acclimate to my name and pronoun changes, and having my name publicly denied by most forms of social media did not help,” Henderson continued. “It feels like I have no choice but to be misgendered and misnamed on a regular basis. It's dehumanizing really.”
Facebook’s corporate statement said the company is working on improving user experiences for people like Henderson, as well as members of the Native American community who have had their names inappropriately reported.
“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 statement said. “We have more work to do, and our teams will continue to prioritize these improvements.”
Until then, Facebook is continuing to feel pushback by individuals like Sekuler and Henderson—as well as by online native solidarity protests like #IndigenizeZuckerberg. And it has certainly started interesting conversations around free speech, privacy, and the freedom to self-identify.
“There’s irony in the fact that Facebook is this space that is publicly private,” Sekuler said. “They’re not navigating this well—there’s a lot of identity politics wrapped into this issue that makes it all incredibly troubling.”