Facebook's real name policy: What cyberbullying activists and drag queens share in common

Facebook revised its 'real name' policy to be more inclusive of the LGBT community, while also protecting Internet users from a proliferation of cyberbullies. 

Nam Y. Huh/AP
In this Oct. 24, 2013 photo, Mark Risinger, 16, checks his Facebook page on his computer as his mother, Amy Risinger, looks on at their home in Glenview, Ill.

Facebook altered its "real name" policy Tuesday amid a heated debate between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and cyberbullying activists. 

The social media website tried to find a middle ground between the two arguments this week, announcing two new initiatives that aim to reconcile online security with freedom of speech.

First, Facebook will revise their name reporting policy so users will have to answer several specific questions when reporting someone’s profile as fake. Secondly, Facebook users will be provided with new ways to verify the authenticity of their name, beyond the original requirements of credit cards or state IDs.

But while rolling out these two new approaches Tuesday, Facebook made it clear that their real name policy is here to stay.

“We’re firmly committed to this policy, and it is not changing,” vice president of global operations Justin Osofsky wrote in a Facebook press release. “However, after hearing feedback from our community, we recognize that it’s also important that this policy works for everyone, especially for communities who are marginalized or face discrimination.”

Cyberbullying activists stand behind Facebook’s decision, saying anonymity is conducive to bad behavior online.

“Anonymity on the Internet sets us free,” explains the awareness campaign Watch Your Space. “When a bully has the power to harass someone anonymously, the consequences can be disastrous.”

Facebook agrees. In their press release Tuesday, Mr. Osofsky also wrote that a solid real name policy “makes it harder for bullies to anonymously smear the reputations of others” because users feel accountable for their words and actions.

And the data backs up their claims. According to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Internet users who have recently been harassed say the bullying occurred on a social networking site and half of all users reporting online harassment say their cyber bully was anonymous.

“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away,” Randi Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg’s sister and former director of market development at Facebook, said in 2011. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down…I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

But drag queen and transvestite performers counter Facebook’s policy, saying they are not trying to be anonymous – in fact, it is quite the opposite. The site undermines their true identity.

“I have been using my ‘name’ since the 8th grade – long ago, approximately 31 years!” wrote one user on the #MyNameIs campaign website.

“I’ve been Sister Roma for 27 years,” a drag queen and well-known LGBT personality told Ars Technica last year. “If you ask anyone my name, in or out of drag, they will tell you it’s Roma. Is it the name on my driver’s license? No. But it is my name.”

“Our chosen names are an important part of our identities and how we interact with our peer and audience,” Seattle based drag queen Olivia LaGarce writes in her Change.org petition against Facebook, which has garnered over 45,000 signatures. “Although our names might not be our ‘legal’ birth names, they are still an integral part of our identities, both personally and to our communities.” 

And some drag queens, such as Lil Miss Hot Mess who lives in San Francisco and is a leader in the #MyNameIs campaign, say Facebook’s real name policy actually affects them by doing what it is supposed to prevent: they feel bullied.

"It's great that Facebook is finally taking steps to reduce 'fake name' reporting as a form of cyberbullying used to silence marginalized communities," Lil Miss Hot Mess wrote The Christian Science Monitor in an email Wednesday. "Just imagine what it would feel like to be denied access to Facebook – to friends, to community support, to professional communications – for a week, let alone a year (as many have been)."

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