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Facebook's real name policy is still a huge problem

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Jay Smooth / YouTube

On Wednesday morning, I got locked out of Facebook.

At first, I thought there was an issue with the app, but after going through the login process, it became clear that it was something else entirely: I’d become one of the latest victims of Facebook’s real name policy. This wasn’t a huge shock for me. Though my entire career is conducted under the name Lux Alptraum — which has appeared as my byline at publications ranging from The Guardian and Al Jazeera America to Cosmopolitan and Fast Company — it is not the name that appears on my legal identification; given the unusual nature of the name, it’s not entirely surprising that it eventually set off someone’s red flag.

Though many first heard of the real name policy last fall, when it led to the suspension of a number of drag queens’ accounts, it’s actually been in effect since the beginning of Facebook. And for a number of years, it’s been plagued by accusations that it’s racist, transphobic, and insensitive to the privacy concerns of vulnerable populations, like domestic violence victims and sex workers. One core issue comes from the fact that Facebook does not require all of its users to submit legal proof of their names. As with many of its systems, its real name enforcement seems to rely on a combination of automation and human monitoring. Under this system, names that sound "fake," or involve dictionary words, are more likely to be flagged.

Plagued by accusations that it’s racist, transphobic, and insensitive to the privacy concerns of vulnerable populations

Chances are good that you can use Facebook as John Smith even if your government name is something else entirely, but sign up with a non-European name (like Kurdistan or Kenyatta Cheese) or a name that doesn’t appear to align with your gender, and you may find yourself on the wrong side of the policy. In recent weeks, a number of Native American users have found that Facebook does not consider their names to be "real" enough, sometimes even after these users have submitted identification — an ironic disenfranchisement that has not gone unnoticed.

Facebook’s real name policy is also inconsistently enforced, further complicating this issue, in addition to unfairly targeting more vulnerable populations. In the first week of February, radio host and blogger Jay Smooth found himself locked out of his Facebook account despite the fact that "Jay Smooth [is] the only name [he’s] used publicly for 20+ years." He was quickly reinstated, with Facebook production engineer Jeff Ferland tweeting an apology less than a day after Smooth’s tweeted complaint. Those who are well connected, or have the press on their side, find they don’t have to play by the same rules as others. (Indeed, when I discovered my account had been disabled, one of my first moves was to text a friend who works at Facebook, who assured me my account would be reinstated.)

The search for a "better" real name policy is a bizarre and useless exercise

In the aftermath of its drag queen drama, Facebook made a pledge to change, promising to reevaluate its policies to better support marginalized populations and allow users to make use of its services under a name that felt appropriate for them. In an email exchange sent to The Verge last year, a Facebook representative promised that "our teams will continue to prioritize these improvements so everyone can be their authentic self on Facebook." But my experience, and the experience of other recently blocked users, suggests otherwise. After getting locked out of my account, the only option I was offered was to update my name; there was no option to contact a Facebook representative or even submit any documentation to support my online identity.

Underlying all of this is the fact that the search for a "better" real name policy is a bizarre and useless exercise, because "real names" are a clumsy metric for the issue that Facebook is trying to solve. If the desire is to prevent abuse, banning people who are largely using the service as intended seems counterintuitive. Monitoring behavior, rather than names, seems like a much more useful strategy. Furthermore, given all the tracking Facebook does in service of its advertising strategy, it doesn’t need users to present under their legal names to know who they "really" are. It should be able to devise a better system to determine who’s just setting up a fake account to troll, abuse, or misrepresent.