People sometimes punish other people simply for being different. I’m not taking about merely being suspicious and having a slightly hostile attitude. No, I’m talking outright punishment. Active, punitive action.
Facebook has a system for harming anyone who happens to be from any ethnic minority or subculture where names are different from mainstream society. As well as harming individuals who for any other reason happens to have unusual names. This system of systematically harming innocent individuals and groups is designed so that everybody who participate can blame each other, thus avoiding any personal responsibility for their actions. It has been made easy for users to accuse, and for Facebook itself to ban people based on accusation alone. The accuser can put the responsibility on Facebook, and Facebook can silently deflect the responsibility on whatever anonymous person who might have done the accusation. With no-one taking real responsibility, the blame is instead shifted onto the victim. The system constructs the situation as if the problem was the name itself, rather than the system’s own discriminatory policies.
Banning people for no good reason
If Facebook merely demanded that people use their real names, it would merely be somewhat problematic. If Facebook simply demanded that people prove their name by sending in ID, it would simply be somewhat more problematic. There is much to be said both for and against such a policy. Sadly, Facebook’s handling of names go much further than that. When somebody accuses somebody else of using a “fake name”, Facebook will in many cases not check ID. Instead, Facebook will simply ban the victim. Which in many cases means banning an innocent person, simply for having an unusual name. Thus automatically validate whoever made the accusation, while causing a lot of trouble for whoever got targeted.
Lets say that you are a reasonable person, debating against some white supremacist male chauvinist who calls himself “Lord Awesome”. So, you report his name. This gets him banned. Facebook has validated you, good for you. But what if he calls himself “Adam White” instead? Facebook will not ban him or ask him for ID. It might not be his real name at all, but there’s nothing you can do about that.
Now, lets say that you are this hypothetical white supremacist male chauvinist who call himself Adam White on Facebook in spite of having a very different name in real life. You start reporting trans people, subculture people, feminists, LGBTQ activists, immigrants, women, people from ethnic minorities, and so on. Anyone who might annoy you in one way or another. Facebook will assist you in your crusade for white supremacy and (cis-)male supremacy, by banning non-mainstream people you point your finger at. Facebook has validated you, good for you. Never mind that these people are using their real names, while you are not. Upholding an superficial appearance of normality is what seems to matter here, not actual truth.
This system have hurt a lot of people. Especially trans people, ethnic minorities and activists in undemocratic countries.
Validating racism, transphobia or any other focus of categorism is bad on many levels. For starters, people who indulge in categorism do not want to see themselves as racists or any other form of categorist. They want to see themselves as normal and get validated in their belief that “the other” is not normal. To validate their bigotry is to reinforce and encourage it.
Two ways of making it even worse
As if the frivolous bannings wasn’t bad enough, Facebook makes it worse in two ways. Lets call them the block appearance problem and the catch 22 problem.
The block appearance problem is that when a person is banned, everyone else are led to believe that they have been blocked by the banned person. Facebook users who seek the banned person on Facebook will not get any clear message that the account has been suspended while investigating the name. Instead, they will be unable to reach the person or see the person’s messages. Looks as if they had been banned by this person. Thus, Facebook doesn’t stop at banning people for no good reason. It also indirectly send a false message to the friends and allies of the victim – telling them that the victim isn’t in trouble but simply has chosen to turn their back on them.
The Catch 22 problem is that while Facebook demands to see ID to restore the name, it is very bad at providing ways to actually show them ID. You can’t log in to Facebook without showing ID first, and you can’t show ID without logging into Facebook first.
Could you get around the Catch 22 problem by simply changing your name on Facebook to something that isn’t your real name? Probably. Except that Facebook is very clear that this violates their rules. This creates another Catch 22: Requiring people to lie about their names to prove that they are telling the truth about their names – while reminding them that they may be stuck with this new fake name for 60 days or even be banned permanently for using it. Keep in mind that if you change your name and then upload ID to prove that the previous name was correct, you also provide evidence that your new name was fake and against their rules.
My own story
Towards the end of Mars 2015, I stumbled upon a heated debate about trans people and social services. There was a certain child who was born with female body, but didn’t want to wear pink or dresses or be called a girl. The parents and the daycare center agreed to simply let it be and see how it develops over time. But when the child moved to another daycare, someone in the staff there demanded that the parents must force the child to dress and behave in a feminine manner. When the parents refused, social services stepped in to investigate them. Sadly, this is not all that uncommon: People who demand that everyone must be entirely cis-gender often lash out at the families of children who show any sign of being trans or non-binary. Baseless accusations to social services are not uncommon, and can go quite far if it gets a social worker who shares the bias.
In the debate over this issue, two women who claimed to work for social services insisted that Social Services never do anything wrong and that the mother must be a deeply disturbed person. These two women got quite hostile when I and another guy disagreed with them. One of them looked up an organization the other guy was active in, and publicly made a complaint to the president of this organization. The other started asking hostile questions about my professional life, questions that seemed designed to mine for something to twist and use against me in real life. And suddenly, bam, I happened to be banned from Facebook. Somebody had accused me of having using a fake name. On this anonymous accusation alone, I got banned for five days.
I got banned on Saturday the 28:th Mars 2015. It lasted until Wednesday the 1:st April.
At this point, Xzenu had been my legal name as well as my Facebook name for roughly a decade. Before that, my legal name as well as Facebook name was one letter shorter. I added the “z” to avoid getting mixed up with fictional characters such as Xena the warrior princess or Xemu the space emperor.
On Saturday the 28:th Mars 2015, I suddenly got a message that my session had expired and that I had to log in again. When I tried to log in, it said that I had to use my real name. When I re-entered my real name, it said that no, I had to enter my REAL name. Also reminding me that if I use a fake name I will be stuck with it for 60 days and maybe also lose my account forever. The site provided information that I should send them a copy of my passport or similar, but did NOT provide any actual email address or upload button for actually sending them this information. They leave me no way whatsoever of contacting them. While one page has a link labeled “let us know”, it simply leads to a message saying “you must log in to continue”. Unsurprisingly, using this page to try to log in simply returns me to the “Enter your authentic name” page. Another page simply said that they don’t verify identities in my region.
Since it looked to everyone as if I had blocked them personally, I had to contact a lot of people on my contact list to inform them that the problem wasn’t with them. Some of them said that they would try to use their contacts in the Facebook company to get my unbanned. Another asked if she may forward my contact information to her contact at a major newspaper.
On Monday the 30:th Mars, I get a call from this newspaper. The next day, 20 minutes before midnight (so it can’t be mistaken for an April’s Fool Joke), they publish an article about the incident. On Wednesday afternoon, it starts going viral. On Wednesday evening, my account works again. Good for me. But the bad system itself still remains.
Facebook need to change their policies. It is not okay to validate bigotry and unwittingly participate in harassment campaigns against minorities and activists. It is not okay to ban innocent people, or to force people who use their real names to adopt fake names instead. The later is not only insulting and a form of public shaming, but it also make them vulnerable to further accusations. Finally, it is not okay to lock people out without giving them an easily accessible way of contacting actual support about it. Thus:
If Facebook should use the “real ID” requirement at all, it shouldn’t ban people without at least giving them some time to show ID first. If a ban does happen, it should still be easy to upload ID and possible to contact Facebook staff about the banning.