NymWars: Facebook's "Real Names" Hardon

Notably, when I wrote this, I was booted. Because I know the occasional person in FB's walled garden, I occasionally wriggle free from it, as I did yesterday, when FB apologized and said it was "an error". It wasn't- it's happened before, and it'll likely happen again. My girlfriend is still banned, because she lacks that access. This is incredibly messed up, and I hope that the meeting that is going on right now between performers and Facebook acknowledges those left behind at the negotiation tables, those for whom a different name isn't just about a brand, but avoiding your abuser, or preventing men from stalking you at your home.

It was two and a half years ago that I presented at South By Southwest on sex workers and social media, particularly on the dangers of “real name policies”. Sex workers are using social media, not only to talk to fans, but to talk to each other, to create community while still maintaining a level of personal privacy that feels good for them. I argued that demanding people use their legal names (erroneously called their “real” name) can make social media an incredibly unsafe place, with more abuse rather than less. I talked about some of the cons to social media, like the overzealous censorship of nudity while ignoring violent gore, or how bullying and harassment goes ignored.

It was a generally well-received presentation, and I noticed that times did change. Google Plus, who was the main offender, changed their policies first to allow nicknames, and then finally in July of this year, doing away with “real name” policies altogether. I figured the NymWars were over with that.

Welp, I guess Facebook didn’t learn anything from Google’s lessons, because they started demanding people prove they were using a legal name on their service. It started with some of the porn performers I knew, spreading slowly to burlesquers and finally to drag queens. That’s when shit really hit the fan. Sister Roma and Heklina planned a protest at Facebook headquarters. So, in solidarity with the many drag queens who were being pushed to provide a government ID with their legal name on it, I joined up too. I’ve watched so many of my performer friends leave Facebook and end up feeling really out of the loop and isolated, and I wanted to speak up about it.

Well, I had my Facebook account put into lockdown until I, too, gave them a “government issued ID, bank statement, medical record” or similar. My girlfriend, also planning on joining the protest, had her account shut down as well within hours of mine. I began to see a trend in who was getting pressured by this policy… everyone who had shared or RSVPed to the Facebook protest. I refused to send them my legal ID, so in response I sent them a photo of a piece of mail, and my business cards with my photo on them. I have yet to find out what will happen to my account, if Facebook will back down (much like Google has) or if I will have to stop using their service.

This is a particularly sensitive topic for me, of course. My legal name (or an approximation of it) was published online once, by an angry group of white straight men called Porn Wikileaks. Doxxing was used to find my grandmother’s address, and my parents’ phone number, which were also published alongside private photos and the words “pornographic whore and hooker”. I had to explain the situation to my parents, who then proceeded to be wary of screening abusive phone calls from entitled men wanting to get to me. Thankfully my family took the whole thing well and were very supportive, but I know other porn performers were not so lucky.

But what do you do when it’s not some assholes on a forum doxxing you, but a social media company you may need to access for work?

It especially seems like a bad time to be insisting marginalized people give up their legal names. In the wake of GamerGate, where doxxing women who write about games has been a method used to intimidate and harass them and their supporters, it seems that pushing such a policy is particularly poorly judged. Anita Sarkeesian was forced to leave her home after specific death threats were made against her and her family. Laurie Penny dealt with a bomb threat. Jenn Frank, Leigh Alexander, and Mattie Brice all quit writing about games because of the overwhelming harassment they faced. Many trans women were outed by their dead names on places like 4Chan. To champion a legal name policy at a time where clearly having a legal name on the internet is unsafe for many people is shortsighted at best, willfully ignorant at worst.

Facebook’s only response as of now is that a formal DBA (“doing business as”) can be used in lieu of using your legal name. The problem with this, of course, is that requiring a DBA mens that your legal name, your performer name, and your address is all on record. For many performers, that just doesn’t feel safe, especially when data breaches are commonplace in the news. It also seems ridiculous that while you can post a nickname onto your profile, it will merely display alongside your legal name. Facebook has drawn a line in the sand- you are not allowed to keep your legal name to yourself and use their site.

The media has for the most part focused on drag queens who are being told to change their names, and Facebook has reached out to them to discuss a solution. The problem is that while drag queens may have gotten attention to this issue, it affects many other people who are not being invited to the table by Facebook. Trans people, activists, sex workers, survivors of violence- these are people for whom using their legal name may feel (and be) actively dangerous. Using a pseudonym allows us to differentiate our private lives and our consumable lives, in a culture where employers snoop around our social media and penalize us for being adults in our personal time. As a sex worker, I have definitely found it harder to find work outside of the sex industry when my legal name was attached to 10 years of erotic performance and smut writing. I have different names for a reason… and it’s for my safety.

There’s a lot of reasons why people don’t want to share their legal names. Even the California government considers a common use name to be your official name for most purposes. Facebook needs to catch up- we all have the right to a secret identity.

Categories: abuse, activism, angry, capitalism, censorship, community, fuck you facebook, queer, stigma

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