It may feel like home, but its actually the McDonalds of the internet.
  • 1000Words/Shutterstock
  • It may feel like home, but it's actually the McDonalds of the internet.

It's a hubbub that's been bubbling to the surface over the past couple of months: In accordance with the company's guidelines, Facebook is quixotically enforcing its "real names" policy, with the primary targets for enforcement thus far being drag queens, burlesque performers, and others operating Facebook pages under ostentatiously fake monikers.

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As Seattle drag performer Olivia LaGarce told me, the "real names" saga first came to her attention in early summer, when the popular queen Gaysha Starr was made to change the name on her personal Facebook page to her legal name. "It seemed like an isolated incident," LaGarce says. "Then, three weeks ago, it started in full force. Every day, 10 new people or more were losing their names in the Facebook crackdown. There are dozens or maybe even hundreds of friends I can't find anymore. They're lost. It's infuriating."

LaGarce channeled his fury into a Change.org petition, co-written with her friend and fellow drag performer Cherry Sur Bete, which points out how the "real names" policy affects the world beyond drag (bolds mine, links hers):

[M]any Facebook users—performers or otherwise—use names that are not their "legal names" to help protect their privacy and anonymity, with good reason. Victims of abuse, trans people, queer people who are not able to be safely "out," and performers alike need to be able to socialize, connect, and build communities on social media safely. By forcing us to use our "real" names, it opens the door to harassment, abuse, and violence. Facebook claims that the restriction on using "real" names "helps keep our community safe" , but in fact this restriction enables our communities to be attacked and degraded, both online and off. Facebook has encouraged performers to create or transition to [Fan] pages, but even Facebook admits that pages typically only reach ~16% of their audience, unless they pay to "promote" a post.

For some concerned parties, this push to get performers to move to easily monetized fan pages is all they need to know about Facebook's motives in enforcing the "real names" policy, and if drag and burlesque artists were the only ones affected, it'd be hard to get too worked up about the moral implications of the rule. Facebook is a business, and if they want to fuck with their formula in pursuit of more dollars, that's fair game. (Especially in a world with Ello and Google+.)

But where things get seriously problematic is with the non-performers. "What we need to do is make masses realize this isn't just a drag queen thing," says Seattle drag star Mama Tits. "It affects trans people, abuse survivors, political refugees, people in industries they want to keep separate from their online lives...It's so much bigger than just the drag queens. It's about having your private identity forced on a public forum."

And then there's the matter of the rule's erratic enforcement, an issue I took to Facebook spokesperson Andrew Souvall...

My initial query:

My question concerns enforcement of the "real names" policy. So far, most of those targeted for enforcement of the rule have been performers whose splashy fake names are designed to draw attention. Disgruntled parties have been told that the "real names" policy is in place to keep Facebook safe from threats, such as pedophiles, who may create fake accounts to interact with potential victims. However, it's unlikely predatory pedophiles will choose attention-grabbing names for their fake profiles, but will instead opt for the type of plain-jane fake names that have thus far flown under FB's radar. My question: How does Facebook plan to enforce the "real names" policy beyond targeting performers with showy names? If the policy is seriously about safety and accountability, wouldn't requiring users to provide Facebook with their official identification (drivers licenses, for example) better serve the interests of safety?

Souvall's reply:

In order to provide a safer, more open environment, we’ve always required that people use their real identity on their Facebook Profiles. For instance, we’ve seen situations where people have used fake names to engage in bad behavior online, including harassment, impersonation and hate speech.

Facebook understands that, for many different reasons, drag queens and other members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community choose to be known by identities other than their legal names in their daily lives, including for their Facebook profiles.

We also recognize that a person’s real identity is not necessarily the name that appears on their legal documentation. That’s why we accept other forms of identification that verifies the name the person uses in everyday life. As explained here, we accept many different forms of identification including mail, a yearbook photo, student card, library card, paystub, bank statement, bus card, and magazine subscriptions.

If people want to use an alternative name on Facebook, they also have several different options available to them, including providing an alias under their name on their profile, or creating a Page specifically for that alternate persona. These Pages do not have to publicly show the person’s real name or link to the person’s Facebook Profile. Many musicians, bloggers, and entertainers use Pages to represent their entertainment personas without linking to their real name profile.

My reply to Souvall's reply:

Could you address the discrepancy in enforcement? If safety and accountabiity are your concerns, how are you going to make sure people are using their real names, instead of just targeting performers with obviously fake names? Does Facebook have a plan to weed out actual threats (predatory pedophiles and bullies creating accounts under "normal-seeming" fake names)?

Souvall's reply to my reply reiterated Facebook's zero tolerance for harassment and child exploitation, and acknowledged that the company doesn't proactively search for false profiles, but instead relies on users to report any and all fishiness.

This brings us to a theory brought up by Mama Tits: "There is a person out there and all they're doing is reporting accounts. They troll [drag performers's] pages, and anyone in the comments who has an interesting or different name, they report them, then hide behind 'safety/community standards.'"

Whatever the case, last Wednesday in San Francisco, Facebook representatives told a coalition of drag performers (led by Sister of Perpetual Indulgence Sister Roma) that they would be granted a two-week grace period, after which all drag-named personal profiles would be deleted. According to this timeline, the hammer comes down this coming Wednesday, October 1.

That gives us all plenty of time to make the leap elsewhere. Or not. Lots of businesses do gross things. And now Facebook's one of them.

In closing, please enjoy this Slate column from July: "Google Plus Finally Gives Up on Its Ineffective, Dangerous Real-Name Policy."