After enduring more than a year of criticism, Facebook is making major changes to the way it enforces its real name policy. Starting today, Facebook users will notice a new system for reporting fake names along with a new system for responding to those reports. The system now includes specific support channels for LGBTQ issues, non-Western names, and instances of stalking or abuse. The new system will deploy in the United States immediately, expanding internationally depending on feedback from the US rollout.
First described in October, the new system is designed to filter out the majority of false reports up front, then devote more human attention to the complaints that do get through. "We recognize that it’s also important that this policy works for everyone," the company wrote in a post, "especially for communities who are marginalized or face discrimination."
Screens from the new appeal process
To do that, the new system first requires more information when reporting someone for using false name, offering separate options for impostors, fictional characters, or simply unexpected names. Once that report is filed, the user in question will be notified and have a week to respond before any action is taken. Facebook has also built out a specialized support team devoted to helping users through the process, providing personal attention to what has historically been a more mechanical process.
Facebook is quick to note that the new system doesn’t reflect a change in the real name policy itself, and users will still be required to use the same name on Facebook that they use in real life. Still, Facebook is betting that the new process will address many of the concerns and open the door to more improvements in the future. "Throughout this process, we will continue our ongoing conversations with the Facebook community so they can share their thoughts on improvements they’d like to see," the company said in its official post.
Adding human oversight
Facebook has drawn criticism from a number of false account flagging incidents, most notably after the company disabled the accounts of a number of San Francisco drag queens in 2014. Most high-profile suspensions have been quickly lifted once brought to Facebook’s attention, but they raised larger concerns about how less press-savvy users might navigate the system. Facebook consulted with a number of gay rights groups while developing the new system, including Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD. It’s too early to tell how the new system would handle many of the high-profile cases from the past year, but adding human oversight to the mix should give Facebook the chance to resolve issues without cutting off access entirely.
The real name policy has also presented problems in cases of stalking and abuse, although those instances have received less press coverage. Targets of sustained abuse sometimes avoid using their legal names for privacy reasons, but until now there’s been little guidance for how to square that practice with Facebook’s policy. In the worst cases, the old system could lead to inadvertent doxxing if a user sent in a driver’s license only to have their account automatically switched to their legal name. To avoid that, the new system adds a Name Verification step, showing reported users exactly how their name will appear on Facebook before making any changes.
"Setting up an appeal mechanism is no small feat."
Some of Facebook's most prominent critics have already applauded the change — including Access Now, which criticized the real name policy as part of the Nameless Coalition earlier this year. In particular, Access said the changes could dampen politically motivated brigade reporting in many countries, and encouraged a global rollout as soon as possible. "Adversaries will have to actually put some effort into abusing the platform, rather than just clicking the first button that pops up," the group said in a statement. "Setting up an appeal mechanism is no small feat, and we encourage Facebook to make this process as transparent as possible and invite input from a range of stakeholders to provide input on its design."
Notably, the new changes also don’t address the forms of identification Facebook uses to verify a person’s name. Facebook’s policy asks for "the name you use in real life" rather than a user’s legal name, but because verification requires third-party documents that often derive from a person's legal name — like a school ID or utility bill — there’s often little difference in practice. Still, Facebook is hoping to create more flexibility in the process in the future, seeking out new forms of ID that the system can verify users without opening the door to abuse. "We want to create the best experience that we can for everyone," the post reads, "and we will continue to make improvements until everyone can use the name that their friends and family know them by."
1:20PM ET: An earlier version of this post claimed that Facebook required state-issued IDs for verification. In fact, the service allows for non-government IDs to be used in the process. The Verge regrets the error.