The Trouble With Facebook's 'Real Names' Policy

By Mike Elgan Print this article Print
Facebook's 'Real Names' Policy

The Internet is a tough place to foster community and social engagement because the bad guys can ruin it. But don't follow Facebook's path and become a bad guy.

"Real" Names Versus "Normal" Names

Clearly, the issue is that Facebook does not have a "real names policy." They have a "normal names policy."

Facebook does not challenge European, gender-normative names, whether real or not. But they do challenge names they do not consider "normal," whether real or not.

The company selectively apologizes or makes exceptions to their policy only in direct proportion to the publicity its victims can bring to bear. Facebook's response has been spin control in order to retain its bigoted, discriminatory policy—which is still in full effect—that demands to see the papers of those who don't appear to belong. In most cases, Facebook requires a government-issued ID or two other forms of identification for those who fail its "normal name" test.

The other major problem with Facebook's "real names" policy is that some people want or need to use names that the company doesn't consider "real." Facebook is global and increasingly serves as the world's "town square"—the virtual place where people gather to discuss important political and cultural topics in public. People all over the world could be jailed, persecuted or even killed if they were caught discussing certain things, such as politics or the rights of homosexuals, in authoritarian countries.

Another group of people that can't use real names in public includes survivors of domestic and sexual violence. (The National Network to End Domestic Violence strongly recommends that victims never use their real names on social networks.)
Facebook insists on "outing" these people—or, at least, silencing them by forcing them to use their real names or banning their use of fake names and driving them away. Either way, their voices won't be heard on Facebook.

It's actually surprising that Facebook hasn't been dragged before congress yet. But the company will, unless it changes this policy.

Lesson Learned From Facebook's Mistakes

There is a fundamental tension between three axes: Encouraging engagement, discouraging trolls and saving money. You can encourage engagement by allowing anonymity or by using heavy, constant moderation (which costs money). Or, you can have a real names policy in which the test to establish the real name is fair and equal for all—not just for minorities (and that costs money, too).

Or, you can do what Popular Science and The Verge did, which is to turn off comments altogether.

The worst thing to do is to take the Facebook route, which has "real names" on the cheap, where the trolling and harassment problem is "solved" by a policy that results in bigotry and discrimination. (It's worse than allowing trolls to take over, because it makes you the bad guy.)

The irony is that this is not even an effective system. Trolls can still open fake Facebook accounts by using fictitious names that sound “normal.”

Today's Internet is a difficult place for any company to foster community and social engagement because the bad guys can ruin it. But it’s important to avoid following Facebook's path and becoming a bad guy yourself.

This article was originally published on 2015-07-28

Mike Elgan, a Baseline contributor, is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker and blogger. http://elgan.com/

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