Facebook Apologizes to LGBT Community for Real-Name Controversy, Vows Changes

Facebook promised to overhaul its reporting and enforcement process regarding its real-name policy in an effort to quell the controversy that erupted last month, when several drag queens and other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community saw their accounts suspended for not using their legal names.

WeApologize650Facebook promised to overhaul its reporting and enforcement process regarding its real-name policy in an effort to quell the controversy that erupted last month, when several drag queens and other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community saw their accounts suspended for not using their legal names.

Chief product officer Chris Cox issued an apology via a Facebook post Wednesday, blaming the issue on a single Facebook user mass-reporting the accounts of drag queens, drag kings, transgenders and other members of the LGBT community, and stressing that the social network will not mandate the use of legal names, but will still require users to identify themselves with the “authentic name they use in real-life.”

Sister Roma, part of drag group The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who was forced to change the name on her account to Michael Williams, was one of the leaders in the movement against the social network’s real-name policy, saying in a Sept. 15 Facebook post:

I am overwhelmed and moved to tears by the literally hundreds of emails I have received from people who are sharing their compelling stories explaining why they don’t use their “real” name on Facebook. I want you all to know that you are not alone, there are many people who were abused, shunned, discriminated against, fought custody battles, survived addiction, and maintain profiles that are very real and very separate from your legal identity. You are REAL, you are important, and your voice will be heard. I am trying my best to reply to everyone. I appreciate you all. Stay strong and safe and be proud of who you are!

San Francisco Supervisor David Campos met with representatives from Facebook, as well as activists and performers, at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., last month, but little was resolved, with Sister Roma saying after the meeting:

We didn’t get the whole issue solved by any means. Facebook refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem with the policy.

Now we’re trying to get Facebook to realize there’s a problem with the way pages are reported and the way that those complaints are researched. There’s a whole community of people that are being targeted and being bullied.

Basically, they offered to give us our profiles back so that two weeks later they could suspend them, demand we comply to their unfair and discriminatory policy and, if not, take them away again. This is completely unacceptable.

Fellow Supervisor Scott Wiener also weighed in on the issue with this Facebook post.

Cox’s post Wednesday reads:

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.

Readers: What did you think of Cox’s post?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.