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Facebook ‘real name’ policy stirs questions around identity

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A man shows the smartphone photo sharing(CNN) — A Facebook policy that asks users to provide real names on profiles has people from all walks of life worrying their accounts might be in jeopardy.

Several gay and transgender entertainers reported last week that Facebook temporarily suspended their personal accounts for not providing their “real name.”

San Francisco drag queen Sister Roma — a member of activist group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — begrudgingly made the change on her personal profile to Michael Williams, a name she has not used publicly for 27 years. She registered her contempt for the policy on social media, leading others to come forward with similar claims.

Since then, the issue has raised concern beyond the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community that anyone could lose their account for not agreeing to Facebook’s definition of a “real name.” It also raises questions around identity and the right to self-determination on social media — whether you’re a drag queen, a mental health provider or an everyday user grasping for some semblance of privacy.

Many people use fake names on Facebook for safety reasons, Roma said. Victims of stalking and relationship abuse have a right to participate in social media anonymously, as do members of the LGBT community who cannot safely be “out,” she said. Public figures such as Roma have spent years building personas under their drag names on Facebook and continue to rely on it for socializing and networking.

“This is bigger than the trans community,” Roma said. “I don’t have a problem with Facebook. I have a problem with the policy. It’s shortsighted, and I don’t think (Facebook) realizes the far-reaching implications of this policy.”

What’s in a ‘real name’?

Many outside the LGBT community sided with Roma’s view of the policy, calling the right to anonymity “an important element of free speech.” But Facebook is policed by community members, industry sources say, suggesting that other users may have reported these performers.

The social media platform describes itself as “a community where people use their real identities.”

“We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe,” its name and birthday policy states.

If people want to use alternative names on Facebook, they have several different options, a spokesman told CNN. They can provide aliases under their names on their profiles, or create fan pages specifically for those alternative personas.

“As part of our overall standards, we ask that people who use Facebook provide their real name on their profile,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Souvall said.

So, what’s a real name? The name you use on your credit card, driver’s license or student ID, according to Facebook. Nicknames are allowed as a first or middle name if they’re a variation of your real first or last name.

For many, it’s not enough. Blissom Booblé is a retired burlesque dancer who does advocacy work for LGBT homeless youth and HIV awareness, but her main source of income comes from being a flight attendant. Using a “pen name” on her personal profile allows her to earn a living “while also doing work that I feel is vital” but not always recognized as acceptable.

“Facebook is key to connection for just about everyone these days, and many of us are known more by our chosen names than by our legal ones. My concern is that this rule has less to do with names and more to do with whose identity is acceptable versus whose identity is not.”

Those who no longer identify by their real name worry it will cause confusion among friends and professional contacts. New York drag queen Ruby Roo reluctantly changed his Facebook profile last week to his legal name so he would not lose friends and contacts going back to his high school years. Still, he’s worried that people who never knew him as Christopher Van Cleave will ignore his messages and posts.

“It’s like Facebook is telling me I can’t promote myself in the way I wanna promote myself, personally or professionally,” he said. “While my drag career is my business, my only source of income, if Facebook wants us to use fan pages then they need to give us the same benefits that regular profiles have, like tagging statuses and pictures.”

At least one person says he was targeted, even though he used his real name. Chase Silva was born in Hawaii, and his full name is Chase Nahooikaikakeolamauloaokalani Silva, according to a birth certificate posted on his Facebook account.

Silva says he also received a notification from Facebook temporarily suspending his account because “it looks like you’re not using your real name.”

“I am a proud Hawaiian who wants to be able display my Hawaiian given name,” Silva said in a Facebook post. He did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Doctors, mental health professionals and therapists also are known to use pseudonyms or fake names so clients cannot friend them.

“It is counterproductive for a client of mine seeking mental health services to be able to, especially at the beginning of our work together, know and see me as I appear on Facebook,” said Benjamin Harden, a pre-doctoral therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area, who uses a fake name on Facebook.

“Many of my colleagues also use a fake last name to prevent this exact type of access by our clients.”

Public pages vs. personal profiles

The policy also raises concerns among entertainers and public figures who maintain personal and professional Facebook accounts under their stage names. A coalition of performers launched an online petition asking Facebook to let them use stage names on personal accounts.

“Our chosen names are an important part of our identities and how we interact with our peers and audiences,” the petition says. “We build our networks, community, and audience under the names we have chosen, and forcing us to switch our names after years of operating under them has caused nothing but confusion and pain by preventing us from presenting our profiles under the names we have built them up with.”

The petition, which has drawn more than 16,000 signatures so far, cites safety from stalkers and overzealous fans as one reason performers use stage names on public pages and personal profiles.

Sex educator Sunny Megatron (not her real last name) is a frequent talk show guest, and has a show debuting on Showtime this fall. Over the years she said she has received numerous emails from stalkers threatening to attack her in her home.

“Divulging my real name publicly could very well put me and my family in danger. Anonymity is important not only to people in the public eye but to anyone who may feel threatened having their private info publicly available.”

The petition also cites the limited functionality of public pages, implying that Facebook has financial motivations for pushing performers to use fan pages. Business pages only reach about 16% of their fans on average, according to Facebook’s own accounting, but many performers cannot afford to pay $30 or more to boost posts, the petition states.

Megatron uses her public page to engage with fans, but it’s a “one-way street” because she cannot post or comment on other people’s pages using her public account.

That’s why she uses her personal profile under her stage name for socializing, networking and building business opportunities.

“Engagement on business pages is a fraction of what it is on personal pages. Although I have three times the amount of followers on my business page as my personal, the interaction just isn’t there,” Megatron said.

“If I want to interact with them I need to have a personal page that I also do some business on. And, frankly, in this day and age when you freelance, it’s nearly impossible to completely separate online personal interactions from online business interactions. Any interaction could generate business.”

But there’s hope, Roma said. A Tuesday protest planned in San Francisco was postponed after Facebook agreed to meet Wednesday with Roma and others affected by the policy.

“This is an historic victory, and we’ve decided to *POSTPONE* our protest and give them a chance to proactively change their policy and ensure online safety and authenticity for everyone,” Roma said in a post.

On Facebook.

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6 comments

  • joseph

    Facebook has forced me to use my real name instead of tacomaseagle which I have used for the last 9 years on facebook I want to use my nickname again but they will not allow me to change my name because I had to prove to them I am who I said I am and was forced into sending in a copy of my licence with vital info blacked out so now I’m stuck using my real name and I don’t like it so I say we should be able to use what ever name we want and who is facebook to say otherwise and back when I signed up for facebook it encouraged us to use what ever name we wanted until recently when I was forced to change it or lose my acct so give me the petition to sign

  • Not Happy

    The same has happened to me this week. I am getting married next year and wanted to use both surnames so people who I don’t see every day, like acquaintances abroad and friends of friends, would get used to it and not delete me when I get married next year. Also I was considering keeping both surnames as I have children of my own and step children and the two surnames mean that all the children (they are teenagers so are on Facebook) are included and their friends and other parents will be able to identify who I am. It is actually giving more identity about myself however Facebook have decided they will not allow this. This “community policing” also gives anyone who may have a vendetta against you the upper hand. All they have to do is tell Facebook you are using a “fake” name and Facebook take their word for it and unless you provide government documents with your name (who do Facebook actually think they are?) your account is suspended. They are literally taking someone else’s word over yours. It’s wrong of Facebook to behave in this way, they are actually taking the side of someone in an argument without even knowing the circumstances. This is so wrong on so many levels, that I have deactivated my account while this is all going on. It is sad because I have been able to keep in contact with relatives of mine who live abroad and can see photos as and when they happen. I cannot see what is so wrong with putting two surnames in. Facebook say they have the “Alternative” name, however this doesn’t show on any comments you make so unless someone actually looks at your account, they will not know it is you. I think this is a golden opportunity for an entrepreneur to create a site the same as Facebook but advertise that you are allowed to go by your “known” name. I bet they would change their policy then!

  • Telly Sanchez

    Thanks heaven I don’t have a facebook account but this simply shows how the whole world- -including those supposed to have a bit of intelligence can be hood-winked or held to ransome by anyone to achieve whatever they want! For teenagers or those who don’t know their right from left, may be it’s pardonable, but for the so-called fully grown adults or those who should know better, it’s another story. One church-goer recently told us that his fath says that Jesus would soon return but before then an anti-christ would come to rule over those who reject Jesus. Another friend argued that this is all rubbish and how can someone so intelligent like himself belief such things and by the way he has more sense than to let any so-called anti-christ mess him about.
    When I first got to know about this Facebook ‘real name policy’, my mind immediately went to the above discussion. That is, if the anti-christ do indeed comes, he would have no problem taking hostage those he wants to destroy as the majorityo of human beings already have their brains and minds twisted and caged, hence they are unable to free themselves from any captivity.
    That’s why today even when the tobacco companies would state in bold letters on their packagings that this product contains POISON and other words like SMOKING CAUSES DEATH many retarded people still part with their monies to purchase the item.
    Now facebook for whatever reason has suddenly decided to make all their users give their real names and it is amazing how hooked all the users have become that they have no choice but to succumb. Ask most of these people what they are gaining from facebook and none is able to give any intelligent reply.