Queens roar, Facebook relents on name policy

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Facebook reversed course, apologized and pledged to clarify its real name policy that in recent weeks locked drag queens and scores of others out of their accounts unless they reverted to their legal names.

Facebook's product chief, Christopher Cox, apologized in a post on Wednesday after a second meeting between drag queens, LGBT activists and company officials at the social media giant's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.,

In the two weeks since the real-name policy issues surfaced, we've had the chance to hear from many of you in these communities and understand the policy more clearly as you experience it. We've also come to understand how painful this has been. We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we're going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were.

Cox said the drag queens and others were locked out of their accounts two weeks ago after one person reported several hundred Facebook accounts as fake. In the future, Facebook will fine-tune its automated process for users to verify their accounts and screen out malicious reports of fake accounts, he said.

All that said, we see through this event that there's lots of room for improvement in the reporting and enforcement mechanisms, tools for understanding who's real and who's not, and the customer service for anyone who's affected. These have not worked flawlessly and we need to fix that.

Sister Roma, a San Francisco drag queen that helped bring attention to the policy flub after being locked out of her account, said after Wednesday's meeting that it's up to users to police Facebook to assure it makes the promised changes.

I sincerely believe that Facebook hears our concerns and I know that they have been working diligently to explore ways to modify their policies and procedures globally to create an authentic and safe environment for all users.

Today's meeting was a GIANT step in the right direction. But this is not over. While most of the actions promised by Facebook will affect users worldwide, we must continue to work with them until everyone, not just drag queens and the LGBT community, has the right to use their chosen, protective and authentic identities.

The Facebook flap ensnared drag queens and queer artists across the country, including several in Atlanta. On Tuesday, Sister Roma headlines an event in Atlanta at LIPS that benefits Lost N Found Youth, MISTER Center and the Atlanta Sisters.

The Transgender Law Center, which was included in Wednesday's meeting with Facebook, applauded the company's latest response.

“We had a very productive meeting with Facebook today in which they apologized for the way this situation has been handled, and they committed to making changes to the way they enforce their 'real names' policy to ensure that folks who need to use chosen names that reflect their authentic selves online are able to do so. We are excited to work in good faith with Facebook to address all the concerns raised in today's meeting. What was made clear today is that Facebook is ready to collaborate with our communities and shares our value of making sure everyone is able to safely be their authentic self online. We applaud the many staff at Facebook who advocated tirelessly for this progress.”

The full statement from Cox at Facebook:

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.

In the two weeks since the real-name policy issues surfaced, we've had the chance to hear from many of you in these communities and understand the policy more clearly as you experience it. We've also come to understand how painful this has been. We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we're going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were.

The way this happened took us off guard. 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. The process we follow has been to ask the flagged accounts to verify they are using real names by submitting some form of ID — gym membership, library card, or piece of mail. We've had this policy for over 10 years, and until recently it's done a good job of creating a safe community without inadvertently harming groups like what happened here.

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.

We believe this is the right policy for Facebook for two reasons. First, it's part of what made Facebook special in the first place, by differentiating the service from the rest of the internet where pseudonymity, anonymity, or often random names were the social norm. Second, it's the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm. The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it's both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance, and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good.

All that said, we see through this event that there's lots of room for improvement in the reporting and enforcement mechanisms, tools for understanding who's real and who's not, and the customer service for anyone who's affected. These have not worked flawlessly and we need to fix that. 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. And we're taking measures to provide much more deliberate customer service to those accounts that get flagged so that we can manage these in a less abrupt and more thoughtful way. To everyone affected by this, thank you for working through this with us and helping us to improve the safety and authenticity of the Facebook experience for everyone.

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