Facebook was confronted with significant criticism of their “real names” policy in recent weeks, specifically the termination of hundreds of personal accounts used by trans people and drag queens as a result of that policy. While this issue only flared up in early September, the policy has existed for years, and this is not the first time it has caused significant problems for vulnerable peoples.
Last week, Facebook changed clarified their policy, addressing the primary concerns of LGBT activists, but while the victory dances are deserved, Facebook’s response is ultimately inadequate, particularly in how it can affect users not living in liberal democracies.
“Real Names” in Egypt
As the 2011 protests in Egypt increased in intensity, a Facebook Page, We Are All Khaled Said, became one of the most prominent online spaces used by protestors to share information and organize. Within days, the page had 130,000 followers, eventually peaking somewhere north of 470,000. Unfortunately, the person who had created the page* was operating under a pseudonym, a necessary move given the Egyptian government’s treatment of dissidents.
The Egyptian state security agency flooded Facebook with reports that the page had been created in violation of the Facebook terms of service, since the creator was not using his “real” name. The day before the Egyptian parliamentary elections, Facebook responded by disappearing the page, threatening to undermine the protests. The page was restored in hours—rather than the days or weeks usually required for an appeal—only because Nadine Wahab, an Egyptian woman who lived in the United States and worked in public relations, called Facebook to have the issue addressed.
The page was restored, and quickly, but Facebook did not change its policy. Page administrators living in Egypt, all of whom needed to use pseudonyms, were routinely removed from Facebook as the Egyptian state reported them to Facebook as violators. Wahab, able to act with impunity because she lived in the U.S., was the only factor keeping the page live.
The Khaled Said case highlights the real danger of “real names” policies. The oppressed often need to use pseudonyms; the oppressors do not. The powerful have nothing to fear in these moments, often specifically because they are willing to resort to cruelty. Those trying to stand against the powerful have everything to fear. In these moments, Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that having a secondary identity shows a lack of integrity is not just inadequate; it is fully inverted. Those without integrity are the ones free to move about using just one identity.
The parallels between last month’s flare-up of this issue and the story of the We Are All Khaled Said are interesting. In both cases, pseudonyms have been used as a measure of protection: protection from on oppressive government, protection from homophobic and transphobic relatives and acquaintances. In both cases, a malefactor used Facebook’s policy as a weapon against oppressed people: the Egyptian government, the unidentified person who reported several hundred Facebook accounts used by LGBT people. In both cases, Facebook insisted the rationale behind the policy was fine; the implementation just needed tweaking.
A Remedy Limited to the “Democracy-Privileged”
When Chris Cox, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer, apologized on behalf of the company for how the “real names” policy had harmed LGBT people, he said the Facebook had not realized how some members of this population were affected. He clarified the company’s policy on these matters, writing, “Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life.”
In the United States, and other western liberal democracies, Facebook and other social media are criticized for enabling “slacktivism.” However, in countries from Egypt to Turkey, and currently in Hong Kong, the state has significant, even total, control of traditional media. Social media become an indispensable means both to promote the reasons for dissent and to organize mass action. A blow against dissidents on social media has very real repercussions for dissent offline, while the dissidents have no parallel leverage to use against the state.
The most recent controversy surrounding Facebook’s names policy might be said to have primarily affected the “democracy-privileged,” and for these populations the company’s response seems to address the problems created by its policy. However, when they reposition that policy as one requiring the use of the names users go by in “real life,”** the policy ignores the very real dangers facing their users in many countries that do not guarantee freedom of speech and assembly.
Properly contextualized, it becomes clear that the “real name” policy does not just need some tweaks; it needs to go. As long as the policy is in place, Facebook creates another weapon that the powerful can use against those they would oppress. Requiring users to employ names already associated with their identities may encourage better behavior on the site, but the evidence for this is weak and skimming the comments threads on many pages will provide a plethora of examples of people content to behave badly using their legal names. Meanwhile, the price for this “better” behavior is paid by the most vulnerable.
* Coincidentally, page’s creator was a Google executive living in Egypt.
**Cox’s use of “real life” to describe offline activities is the most problematic moment is a statement rife with problems. I suspect it was not unintentional. While Facebook has become a powerful tool, one that has taken a central role in toppling governments, minimizing that role by positioning it as “fake life” obscures how Facebook’s actions can lead to real people dying real deaths and undermines criticism, because why get worked up over something so not-real?