Drag performers, nightlife personalities, and members of the transgender community (among others) are claiming victory today in a weeks-long battle against Facebook’s “real name” policy. As I reported back in September, the story broke when hundreds of drag queens complained of having their accounts challenged or suspended starting around Sept. 10 and continuing in the days that followed. The queens’ Facebook friends experienced the crackdown as a strange invasion of their newsfeeds: Updates from Sister Roma and Honey LaBronx were replaced by unfamiliar “boy” names like Michael Williams and Ben Strothmann.
The sudden enforcement of the real-name policy, which has long been a tenet of Facebook’s approach to transparent and ad-directed social networking, drew criticism not only from drag performers, but also from other groups—transgender people who cannot get an official name change and victims of domestic violence and stalking, for example—for whom listing their legal name online could be humiliating or even dangerous. Protests and meetings were organized at Facebook’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters, and many in the queer community took the opportunity to leave Facebook, turning alternative social networks like Ello into household names almost overnight.
Today, Facebook considerably softened its position. Chris Cox, the company’s vice president of product, wrote in a post that the entire fracas “took us off guard.” He also confirmed information Outward obtained from sources, suggesting that the crackdown was the result of a concerted effort by an unnamed person:
An individual on Facebook decided to report several hundred of these accounts as fake. These reports were among the several hundred thousand fake name reports we process every single week, 99 percent of which are bad actors doing bad things: impersonation, bullying, trolling, domestic violence, scams, hate speech, and more—so we didn’t notice the pattern.
He went on to add an interesting (and perhaps revisionist) bit of nuance to the “real name” philosophy:
Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. 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. Part of what’s been so difficult about this conversation is that we support both of these individuals, and so many others affected by this, completely and utterly in how they use Facebook.
Cox admitted that though identity transparency remains “the right policy” for Facebook, the definition and application of that ethos could stand some improvement, “With this input, we’re already underway building better tools for authenticating the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors,” he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, some of the people who had been protesting the policy seemed pleased with the statement. “We couldn’t be happier,” an organizer of the #MyNameIs awareness campaign wrote, “so we’re turning this protest into a VICTORY RALLY!!!” That announcement appeared, of course, on Facebook.