What happens when Facebook says you don't exist

Facebook recently updated its 'real name' policy, but many regular accounts are still being reported and deactivated. Critics of the policy see this as an attack on identity.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters/Files
A 3D plastic representation of the Facebook logo is seen in front of displayed logos of social networks in this illustration in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 13.

Nadia Drake doesn't exist. Or, at least, Facebook says she doesn't.  

On June 4, Dr. Drake, a science journalist, tried logging into her account, but instead of seeing the usual glowing blue screen of tiny friends’ faces, Candy Crush requests, and videos taken while driving, Drake was greeted with an alert demanding she prove that she existed.

Someone reported her account as pseudonymous, or using a “fake name,” which is a violation of Facebook policy. Now the social media service has deactivated her account and requests that she verify her identity with photos and official documents to get it back.

“I will not be verifying my identity in the way they want me to,” she says. Drake does not feel comfortable sending her ID to Facebook, and does not agree with the policy that got her account reported in the first place.

Facebook has an “authentic identity” policy whereby people must use a “verifiable name.” If someone – anyone from the community – reports an account for being "inauthentic," the accused must upload documents proving his or her identity to Facebook. The intent, according to the company, is that users know at all times who they’re talking to. The impact, however, is that affected users often are placed through extraordinary hurdles to send documents to Facebook that either they do not feel comfortable sending or that they do not have.

For the most part, the average user is unaffected by this policy, but it has gotten the company into a bit of trouble. Some people refuse to comply, either out of privacy concerns or because their sense of identity is not reflected on their birth certificate.

Identity is such a complex issue, says Drake. "Where does Facebook get the power to decide what 'authentic' is?"

For Facebook, a user’s identity is at the cornerstone of its product. “Facebook has always asked users to use a real name,” says a spokesperson for the company. That direct attribution is what differentiates it from other services. If users were allowed to use “inauthentic” or unverifiable names on the platform, the company says it would lead to an increase in the harassment problems it’s been working for years to curb.

But there is a sort of intriguing irony to what was once called the company’s “real name” policy: any user may report an account for using a pseudonym.

Nine months before Drake’s run-in with her own identity, the San Francisco drag community was targeted. Many accounts were reported and deactivated and only after meetings with Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, did the company issue an apology.

“Different communities have clearly been targeted,” says Lil Miss Hot Mess, a drag queen in San Francisco who leads the #MyNameIs campaign to change Facebook’s “authentic name” policy. The campaign represents those who use names on Facebook that may not match their legal identity, or that Facebook says goes against its identity policy.

“Often people’s ‘authentic names’ don’t actually match their legal names,” says Drake.

Lil Miss Hot Mess and #MyNameIs feel the policy overreaches because it focuses on people’s identity rather than their behavior.

Facebook users can report accounts for harassment, abuse, impersonating another person, or for "using a fake name." Critics of Facebook's "real name" policy say this last option attacks identity rather than behavior.

Facebook asserts that the company is not proactive in seeking out pseudonymous accounts; harassment, abuse, and “fake name” reports come purely from its community. But the company still reviews each report filed and has the means to deactivate or reactivate questionable accounts. Hundreds of thousands of reports are filed each day, says a spokesperson for the company, though the number of accounts reported specifically for pseudonymity is not made public.

“So many people are getting caught up in it who really are just expressing themselves in a way that’s slightly outside of the mainstream,“ Lil Miss Hot Mess says.

Specifically, members of the LGBTQ and Native American communities have been targeted, reported, or seen as violating Facebook’s standards. Facebook has met with many of the groups affected, and has worked to improve its policy over the past year, but critics, including some at the company, feel there’s still more work to do. Others go so far as to say the policy fails to deal with the concerns it was created to address.

“I do recognize that people behave differently when their names and faces are out there,” Drake says, but “there is a difference between being anonymous and being pseudonymous.”

On pseudonymous services, such as Twitter, a user might not use his or her given name, but there is a persistent identity, says Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of “The Social Machine.”

“[But] Facebook has quite a rigid policy,” says Dr. Donath. “It’s basically saying ‘You have one identity. There’s a singular you. You have to be one and only one person and it has to be what everyone knows you as. And we’ll make the concession that it’s not legally on your birth certificate but we’re not making any further concession.’ ”

On Facebook, there is no separate persistent identity. A user’s local identity must match some form of universal identity: mail, photo ID, library card. For all intents and purposes, one’s Facebook name must be congruent with their physical, public identity.

For many escaping abuse or harassment, coming to terms with a sense of self, or working to maintain a sense of digital privacy, that online pseudonymous identity is important. Some teachers, police officers, or mental health workers find it crucial to use an online pseudonym. Just as one may have a separate professional and personal e-mail account, it can be necessary to separate the life you share with friends from the one you share publicly.  

Facebook captures more than 71 percent of all Internet users in the US, with more than a billion users worldwide. Other companies rely on this ubiquity, using Facebook accounts as authorization for their own services. But this, in turn, has standardized digital identity. While this convenience benefits most users, it may be alienating for those who fit through the cracks.

The Internet acts as a way for people to reach out and connect with others, says Lil Miss Hot Mess. “To not be able to participate on it really can remove you from not only the communities you find support in, but society at large.”

While Lil Miss Hot Mess regained control of her Facebook account in October, Drake, like so many others, has been effectively locked out. Despite numerous attempts to reach out to Facebook, Drake says her case was closed after a week. For Drake, her once vibrant social life is now invisible. Her profile, photos, and messages have been lost. To her online friends, she simply stopped being.

It’s isolating, Drake says. The convenience of communicating with friends all around the world is gone. It’s more difficult to connect with people you’d otherwise never get to see.

“Even though it could feel so overwhelming at times,” she says, “I miss the baby pictures.”

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