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If Mark Twain were on Facebook today, there’s a good chance his account would be suspended until he agreed to call himself “Samuel Clemens.”
That’s how punk music journalist Legs McNeil feels about the social network’s so-called real-names policy in the weeks after his account was suspended because that moniker isn’t his actual name.
Although Facebook has been trying to clarify its policy over the past few months, a number of people, including a Native American author, have had their accounts shut down recently because of what the company saw as violations of the standard.
The most high-profile case has been that of the Native American author Dana Lone Hill, whose account was temporarily shut down earlier this month under the social network’s policy.
And despite Facebook’s pledges to make the policy easier to navigate, the company has also recently suspended — at least temporarily — the accounts of well-known hip-hop DJ Jay Smooth and punk music journalist Legs McNeil.
In an essay titled “Facebook don’t believe in Indian names,” Lone Hill, a member of the Lakota People and the author of the 2014 novel Pointing with Lips, reported that her Facebook account had recently been suspended. The suspension notice she received read, “It looks like the name on your Facebook account may not be your authentic name,” and continued, “We ask everyone to use the name they go by in real life so friends know who they’re connecting to.”
Lone Hill ridiculed the policy.
“At first I had thought it was because I switched my name to my father’s last name,” Lone Hill wrote, “which I had gone by up until high school when I received my birth certificate and realized not only was my middle name different, but my last name was actually my mother’s maiden name. There isn’t much difference wordwise to both last names. My mother’s is Lone Hill, my father’s is Lone Elk. Even though wordwise they are [not] very different, the meanings are worlds apart as to how they were both given.”
She went on to note that “Facebook shut me out for using my father’s and my mother’s last names,” and said that she had sent Facebook three forms of ID, “one with a picture, my library card, and a piece of mail in file form,” only to be told she would have to be patient while the company investigated her claim that she’s a real person. She had been on Facebook as Dana Lone Hill since 2007. Most likely, someone reported the account as violating Facebook’s policy, a step that instigated the company’s investigation.
As of this writing, Lone Hill’s account is once again active, suggesting that the company accepted her documentation. The company appears to have attributed the suspension to a “mistake,” Lone Hill told VentureBeat, but she thinks the reactivation only happened because the news site Colorlines wrote about the suspension.
Although she’s thankful to have been let back into her account, where she maintained a number of important photographs, Lone Hill is not happy. “I am still angry because it has been happening to Natives for awhile,” Lone Hill said. “They apologized but for them to make me prove who I am, as if my name isn’t real, still bothers me.” She also said she knows of other Native Americans who have recently had their Facebook accounts suspended — some before, and some after hers.
Clearly, Facebook is going to have to do more to convince skeptical people that its real-names policy is not onerous and works for people who are known in public by names other than they are called on their birth certificate. This has been a problem for Native Americans before. In October, Shane Creepingbear tweeted that his family name didn’t meet Facebook standards.
Creepingbear noted the irony that Facebook’s refusal to allow him to register his account with his family name came on Columbus Day, which is celebrated in the Native American community as Indigenous Peoples Day.
More recently, likely in response to the suspension of Lone Hill’s account, Creepingbear tweeted that, “While [Facebook] can set the Terms and Conditions for use of its products, positioning itself as the arbiter of what names are real smacks of bigotry.”
This issue has come to light before. Last fall, Facebook took heat for suspending the accounts of members of the LGBT community. In a statement at that time, Facebook vice president of product Chris Cox wrote, “I want to apologize to the affected community of drag queens, drag kings, transgender, and extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we’ve put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks.”
Cox also said that Facebook knows that in certain communities, people go by pseudonyms, and is trying to incorporate that reality into its standard. “Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name,” Cox said. “The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma, that’s Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that’s Lil Miss Hot Mess.”
But in a December town hall, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated that the company intends to maintain its real-names policy. Answering a question on the topic, Zuckerberg said there are good reasons the social network makes it hard to change your username, or to use a false username. “It’s important that people refer to themselves with their real names,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “There are a lot of online communities that are separated from reality and the world. That we ask everyone to use their real name kind of grounds it to reality and ties it back to the person’s real identity.”
‘Committed’ to making it work
It seems that Facebook is trying to find ground that recognizes that some people’s public identities do not match their legal names, while also requiring most of its 1.39 billion users to adhere to the real-names policy.
“We are committed to ensuring that all members of the Facebook community can use the authentic names that they use in real life,” a Facebook spokesperson told VentureBeat today. “Having people use their authentic names makes them more accountable, and also helps us root out accounts created for malicious purposes, like harassment, fraud, impersonation and hate speech.”
The spokesperson added that in recent months, the company has made improvements in how it applies the policy, “including enhancing the overall experience and expanding the options available for verifying an authentic name.”
But even Facebook knows it hasn’t figured out a way to make the standard work for all of its users. “We have more work to do, and our teams will continue to prioritize these improvements so everyone can be their authentic self on Facebook,” the spokesperson said.
Still, there are an increasing number of cases where people who have long gone by monikers other than their legal name have had their accounts suspended. Recently, hip-hop DJ Jay Smooth reported on Twitter that his account had been closed. “FYI my Facebook account was shut down today,” he tweeted, “because Jay Smooth, the only name I’ve used publicly for 20+ years, is not my ‘real name.'”
Jeff Ferland, a Facebook moderator and production engineer, quickly responded on Twitter, saying the suspension must have been “a mistake,” echoing the language used when reactivating Lone Hill’s account, and in less than two hours wrote, “We’re very sorry. This is fixed now and we’ll look into how this happened and how we can prevent it in the future.”
‘If I wanted to go by Eddie McNeil, I would’ve’
Others who have long used their “authentic” names on Facebook have also recently seen their accounts fall victim, at least for a short period of time, to the policy. For example, Legs McNeil, the punk music journalist, whose Facebook account now identifies him as Eddie McNeil.
In an interview, McNeil said he’d simply discovered one day that he’d been locked out of his account, and that Facebook hadn’t informed him of the suspension. In order to get back in, he’d had to play around with various names until “Eddie McNeil” was accepted. But he said that that isn’t even his actual legal name, which is Roderick Edward McNeil, a “real dipshit name.”
For McNeil, access to his Facebook account, which he’d registered around 2006, was essential, as he’d been accumulating business contacts there for an upcoming book. And to his readers, “‘Legs McNeil’ means something to people….If I wanted to go by Eddie McNeil, I would’ve. But I didn’t. I’ve been Legs McNeil since 1975.”
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