Facebook said today it would build new authentication tools to verify accounts flagged for being fake, following a controversy in which members of the LGBT community began leaving the social network so that they could use pseudonyms. "We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we're going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were," said Chris Cox, the company's chief product officer, in a Facebook post.
The issue arose two weeks ago when Facebook cracked down on several hundred drag performers whose accounts had been reported as fake. Facebook's process for verifying accounts involves asking the person who has been reported as fake to submit some form of identification indicating they are using their real name. "We've had this policy for over 10 years, and until recently it's done a good job of creating a safe community without inadvertently harming groups like what happened here," Cox said in his post.
"We support these individuals completely and utterly in how they use Facebook."
Cox said Facebook has never required everyone on Facebook to use their legal name; rather, he said, they should use the name they use in real life. "For Sister Roma, that's Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that's Lil Miss Hot Mess," Cox said, referring to two of the policy's protesters. "Part of what's been so difficult about this conversation is that we support both of these individuals, and so many others affected by this, completely and utterly in how they use Facebook."
"The drag queens spoke and Facebook listened!"
A coalition of protesters praised Facebook for agreeing to build new tools. "The drag queens spoke and Facebook listened!" San Francisco Supervisor David Campos said in a statement. "Facebook agreed that the real names policy is flawed and has unintentionally hurt members of our community. We have their commitment that they will be making substantive changes soon and we have every reason to believe them."
Sister Roma, a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who led the protests, joined in the praise. "I always knew that Facebook would do the right thing," she said in a statement. "The people who work at Facebook live in San Francisco and are part of our community. You can't be a San Franciscan and not love drag queens. I'm just happy I'll have my name back."
Still, it's unclear how Facebook will accommodate performers like these in the future. Facebook's real-name policy, even if it isn't universally enforced, is still one of the site's defining features. It's part of the pitch the company makes to advertisers — these are real people — and as Cox notes, it offers helpful protections against abuse and harassment online. "It's the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm. The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it's both terrifying and sad," Cox wrote.
Cox says the company is "building better tools for authenticating the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors. And we're taking measures to provide much more deliberate customer service to those accounts that get flagged so that we can manage these in a less abrupt and more thoughtful way." The Verge has asked Facebook to clarify what tools it is developing.