The Trouble With Facebook’s ‘Real Names’ Policy

Trolls are a big problem. And, at some point, just about every company must grapple with the Internet scourge of these sadistic, trouble-making haters.

Some companies encounter trolls only on the social networks. Depending on the nature of the business, troll-control tools (or their lack) may persuade some firms to choose—or avoid—an active presence on particular social networks.

Other companies have to deal with trolls on their own sites. They may offer customers and the general public the opportunity to comment and converse around brands or events or in an effort to foster community.

There are no easy solutions. Any company that lets the public comment must choose between anonymity—which encourages free expression but attracts trolls—or real identity—which reduces engagement but discourages trolls.

Either way, it’s important to learn about and understand the catastrophe that is Facebook’s Real Names Policy.

A Policy That’s a PR Nightmare

Unlike Twitter, Google Plus and other major social networks, Facebook has what’s called a “Real Names” policy. Its stated purpose is “safety,” by which the company no doubt means protection from trolling, harassment and identity theft.

Facebook says it “requires people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.”

The trouble is that the policy is inherently bigoted and discriminatory. Before we go any further, let me state that I do not believe Facebook’s policy is motivated by bigotry or a desire to discriminate. Nevertheless, the outcome is a public relations disaster and Facebook must—and will—change it.

While Facebook “requires” users to use their real names, it doesn’t have a fair and unbiased way to determine what people’s names are. In place of such a system, the company falls back on guesswork that’s based on whether or not names sound real. And that’s where the bigotry and discrimination come in.

Here are two very real examples:

While writing this column, I created a fake Facebook account as a male named John Jones—clearly not my real name. But Facebook accepted it as a real name because it sounds “normal.” It’s European and “appropriate” for the stated gender.

The second example is when a Lakota woman named Dana Lone Hill tried to sign up for a Facebook account. Unlike me, she used her real, legal and only name.

Facebook challenged the name, telling her that it looked like she wasn’t using her “authentic name,” and that in order to use Facebook, she would have to “verify the name that best represents [her] identity.”

Lone Hill was locked out of Facebook until she could prove her identity. She sent Facebook a photo ID, a library card and a piece of mail. That wasn’t enough, so she had to send more. It was only after her story went viral that Facebook restored her account.

It turns out that such problems are common among Native Americans. In some cases, Facebook has allowed some Native Americans to use its site only after giving them a European name to use on Facebook. In another case, a man named Lance Brown Eyes was allowed to use Facebook, but only as Lance Brown—until he threatened a class-action lawsuit.

Others have experienced trouble getting Facebook to accept their real, but “abnormal” names. A man name Daniel Balls never got Facebook to accept his name, assuming it to be a crude joke. Ironically, he then used the fake name Daniel Schlong, which Facebook accepted.

My fake but “normal” name passed. A real but “abnormal” name does not pass.

More Stories