(If you’ve lost access to your account due to being reported for a “fake” name, please see How to not lose, or regain, your account with a “false” name on Facebook)
Recently, my account was deactivated because, I was told, there was a suspicion that my name was not my real name. While there are many ways that Facebook likely employs to catch “fake” names, in this case, I instantly knew: I had been reported by someone – someone who knew which name I preferred to go by on social media, and who wanted to maliciously force my real name out.
I say maliciously because I keep strict divisions in my life as to where I use my social media identity and where I use my other name (work, education). We are living in a virtual age where people are free to explore identity in meaningful ways that allow us to be expressive and accountable to different interests, different ways of existing and creating and interacting. And it’s unfortunate that Facebook’s “Real Name” policy does not account for the sheer diversity in people’s experience.
There are also other ways in which Facebook “trawls” for false names. It’s likely they have employees searching for what they perceive to be false names, as well as bots, which obviously likely do not pick up on racialised names as authentic to begin with. But in this case, I knew I’d likely been reported by a specific someone.
I want to take some time now to point out why you should never report someone to Facebook for using a fake name. I understand their policy is awful – because anyone can report and lock your account down, basically, without any proof, and it completely throws the most marginalized people under the bus. But this isn’t about Facebook’s policies being awful. This is about how we are living in a world with these awful policies and with nothing else as yet that compares to Facebook’s versatility for interaction.
Please also keep in mind that the situations described below could occur simultaneously in any combination for any single person – and that the more they are dealing with, the worse such a ban is for them.
1. They may be a sexual assault survivor/domestic violence survivor and hiding from their ex.
Someone may be in great danger and you might not realise this or recognise this on a daily basis just through interacting with them. They may never tell you about their past or why they go by a particular name. But if you force them to change back to a name where they can be identified, their abusive exes might be able to find them online and stalk them.
2. They may be a conditionally closeted queer person who is only “out” under a pseudonym – and not out to their families.
The person you are reporting may not be out about their sexual or gender identity; they may write lots of interesting stuff on the issues at hand, they may even say they are out, but they may be conditionally closeted to professionals in their field, family, and even some friends. When you report someone, you risk that they will be found, and that people in one part of their life will suddenly become aware of another, much more secret and private, part of their life.
This is doubly so for those of us who are racialised and queer: we may not be out to our families, but we cannot risk alienating them. We also need access to support spaces, communities, and ways to interact with people who are well positioned to validate our multiple identities.
3. They may be trans, and this is their real name – the one they go by, but there may be no documentation to really show it as yet (and maybe they don’t want documentation at this point in time)
When you report a trans person for “not using their real name” you are engaging in an act of despicable transphobia known as deadnaming. Not only are you forcing someone to use a name they were assigned at birth that they fundamentally do not identify with, you might be outing them as trans to people who do not know they are trans. You might be putting them in danger of violence.
4. They may not have the necessary documents in order to prove that they are the rightful owner of that account.
This is particularly true for poorer folks, for whom bureaucratic systems such as photo IDs are difficult to navigate. Facebook demands one piece of governmental ID, or two pieces of nongovernmental ID – together, these must show your name, photo, and date of birth. In fact, I had to submit two pieces of governmental ID in order to get my name change done – they wouldn’t take just one. Where does that leave people without the necessary documents?
5. They may be extraordinarily isolated and are accessing Facebook in order to access support spaces and community forums for stigmatised issues.
Someone may be accessing a group for mental health issues, for depression, for anxiety, for embarrassing or stigmatized health conditions like HIV, herpes, or other STIs. Even if those groups have privacy settings, there is always a risk that people within those groups may know who you are. For people to access these kinds of support spaces, anonymity, and a fake name, can be super helpful. Without that anonymity, even if they do get access to their account, they will not be able to access those spaces in the same way again, if at all. By stripping them of their anonymity here, you are burning their bridges for community help and support.
6. They may identify as of colour, and/or Black, and/or Indigenous, and their real name simply isn’t “white” enough to be recognized as “real” or “authentic” by Facebook.
Even real names can come under fire when this policy is leveraged, when the names do not sound white enough, western enough, or legitimate enough. While one could argue “so what? Just submit ID to show your name is real”, in reality, it’s not that simple to regain access to one’s account. In particular, there are cases where Facebook is used for online outreach by non profits, social workers, and other professionals who are working within the context of isolated populations that need prompt support and care.
Take for instance, the case of Navajo social worker Amanda Blackhorse, she was unable to “use the network to reach out to young Native Americans who indicated they might commit suicide”. Due to various reasons including intergenerational colonial trauma, Indigenous youth are at an increased risk for suicide. Online support networks are crucial in supporting marginalized youth, and taking that away can quite literally cause harm to the most vulnerable.
7. They may be professionals who meet a wide range of people who they cannot interact with through social media without awkward repercussions around confidentiality and maintaining professional distance in their relationships.
Whether someone is a doctor, a teacher, or a sex worker, there are people in their lives (patients, students, and clients) who they may not want to interact with outside the context of their professional lives. Yet, if they’re forced to use your real name, people in their professional life may seek them out in your personal life – and find them. Ignoring patients, students, and clients may not be an option because that could have financial repercussions – people could leave your care, complain about you or your organization/school, or stop accessing your sex work services.
8. There is no guarantee that even with identification, they will get their account back.
Someone could lose photos, business contacts, and much more if Facebook operators/bots simply do not approve of the ID being submitted. Maybe they don’t recognise health cards, which are government issues in Canada, as legitimate, since the lack of universal healthcare plans in the States. Facebook’s bureaucracy makes it impossible to speak to a real human when you’re trying to get the account back, so you might lock someone out forever – along with their memories and very real connections to their communities.
Using your real name on Facebook makes you easier to find. Period. People already on your Facebook know who you are. Friends don’t report each other to friends – false name reporting is purely done by people who want to out people for whatever reason. The idea that this “real name” policy protects against “trolls” is absolute bollocks. Trolls still make rape “jokes” with impunity on Facebook. Trolls still make racist “jokes” without any repercussions whatsoever. There is no way that in a racist, sexist, queerphobic, classist world that a policy like this will favour the people who need the most protection from trolls. Indeed, all this policy does is make everyone more searchable; it does not guarantee that people who are behaving irresponsibly, stalking, or otherwise being awful will ever be taken seriously by Facebook. So long as an abusive racist uses his real name, he will never be under threat of this policy, but someone responding to his abuse in a passionate way, whose only shield is their pseudonym is immediately at risk if this policy is leveraged against them. In other words, Facebook is “conflating authenticity with accountability”.
If you hate someone so much on Facebook, there is an easy alternative to remove them from your life: Block them. It is kind to both of you, it is decent to both of you, and it is anything but the nightmarish Orwellian/Foucauldian surveillance program for which Facebook wants you to volunteer.