During the month of September 2014, Facebook began to suspend the accounts of several drag queens in the San Francisco area. Since its inception, Facebook has operated by requiring users to provide their real names, which has led to problems in the past as well. When Facebook chooses to purge accounts, however, the site has a “long, constantly updated ‘blacklist’ of names that people can’t use,” according to a 2009 USA Today article that details the problems that this policy can cause for individuals with unusual names. This particular policing of online identity created controversy last month as these drag queens publicly confronted Facebook, charging that the social media company was forcing drag performers to change their names on the site or lose their personal Facebook accounts.
Two of the drag performers, Sister Roma and Lil Miss Hot Mess, have been particularly vocal about the controversy. Sister Roma explains the significance of being able to post and use Facebook authentically: “I do this work as Sister Roma and that is how the Facebook community knows me and who they look for to get news about [LGBTQ] issues and events. If you ask anyone what my name is, in or out of drag, they will tell you it’s Roma. No one knows Michael Williams.”
In response to this criticism, a Facebook representative told the Huffington Post that “If people want to use an alternative name on Facebook, they have several different options available to them, including providing an alias under their name on their profile, or creating a Page specifically for that alternative persona… As part of our overall standards, we ask that people who use Facebook provide their real name on their profile.”
This is not a new policy, and problems with the policy aren’t new either. Several years ago, author Salman Rushdie found that Facebook deactivated his account until he was able to prove his identity. They first insisted that he go by his first name, Ahmed, instead of his middle name, which the world knows him by. After he complained publicly about Facebook’s difficult policy, the social media company allowed him to revert to the name that his readers recognize, Salman Rushdie.
As Facebook has articulated the importance of “realness” and authenticity in its name policy, The New Yorker raises an interesting point: “realness” is also a concept used by many non-white drag performers. “In the 1990 documentary ‘Paris Is Burning,’ drag performers are shown competing in balls where they’re judged based on the ‘realness’ of their drag. ‘The idea of realness is to look as much as possible as your straight counterpart,’ Dorian Corey, a drag queen, says in the film.” The concept of “realness” is subjective, yet key to an understanding of Facebook’s policy and how it is enforced.
These questions and controversies also raise questions of power. Who gets to determine “realness” in the realm of Facebook? Is it the primarily white and primarily male Facebook employees who notice these so-called “fake” profiles and deactivate them? What populations are most affected by Facebook’s “real name” policy?
Co-director of Community United Against Violence Maria Carolina Morales told NPR that survivors of violence might not use their legal names on Facebook because this serves as a way to protect themselves from abusers. Additionally, social networks may be key for these survivors in reconnecting with support systems after traumatic experiences. A 2012 study of 200 Nigerian undergraduates shows that these students were eager to Anglicize their names on Facebook – to seem cooler, to facilitate interactions on the site, and to westernize in step with the Anglicizing trend that their classmates are following. This trend suggests that colonial and racist forces have a transnational influence that manifests itself in the way that Nigerian students self-present their “real” identities on Facebook. According to The Wall Street Journal, “fake or duplicate accounts and names make up a chunk of Facebook’s 1.32 billion users, and Facebook has aggressively pursued those it believes aren’t being truthful. In some cases, it has forced political dissidents living under authoritarian regimes to use their real names, a move criticized by human-rights advocates.” This is, of course, not to mention those trans* individuals whose legal names no longer align with their gender identity, gender expression, or gender presentation. These examples illustrate myriad other reasons for using a Facebook name that doesn’t align with an individual’s name as it appears on an ID.
After public campaigning from San Francisco drag queens using the hashtag #MyNameIs, Facebook agreed to meet with them.
— Sister Roma (@SisterRoma) October 1, 2014
After the September 17 meeting, Facebook executive Chris Cox posted the following on his public Facebook account:
// “We’ve also come to understand how painful this has been. 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.”
While the policy isn’t perfect, Cox’s post does important work in clarifying the reasons that Facebook has it. danah boyd writes that “when teens create profiles through social media, they are simultaneously navigating extraordinarily public environments and more intimate friendship spaces” (47). The same likely holds true for social media users of all ages. As questions of identity and authenticity continue to arise, it is important to critically analyze the historical contexts of these questions, as with the recent drag queen Facebook controversy.
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