The Facebook Bully

Judge an online community by how well it protects its most vulnerable users.

There is something especially heartbreaking about the recent news that Facebook executives met with a group of drag queens from San Francisco to discuss the social network’s infamous “real names” policy. By now Facebook knows a wide range of very real people chose aliases instead of what “would be listed on your credit card, driver’s license or student ID” and find their policy undesirable. Various communities have protested it over the past four years. Even Salman Rushdie was once threatened with account suspension in 2011. At first, Facebook didn’t believe he was the author. After he sent them a copy of his passport, they reinstated his account as “Ahmed Rushdie” — “…in spite of the world knowing me as Salman. Morons,” he posted to his page. Eventually they let him use his preferred name.

But headlines like “Facebook Will Delete All Drag Queen Profiles in 2 Weeks” signal a new low. “Purging” the accounts of drag queens — seriously? There’s even a Snopes page to confirm it because it sounds too awful to be true. These are vulnerable users, many of whom rely on Facebook for building a fan base and promoting their events. In addition to demanding that users out themselves, it is an attack on their livelihoods.

Earlier this year, Google Plus abandoned its real-name policy as it created “unnecessarily difficult experiences for some of our users.” This was an opportunity likewise for Facebook to revise its approach to community management. But the meeting was doomed from the start. Facebook apparently had no intention of negotiating because the policy was crafted for the sale of targeted ads not for the safety of human beings with complex identities. The drag queen community was ordered they have until Oct 2nd to decide whether to use the service according to Facebook’s name policy or change their profiles into pages for public figures, which in addition to removing social network features, means posted content may be algorithmically throttled unless someone pays for the service.

Facebook appears like a school bully: a school bully proud of his reputation as a school bully, picking on people he knows lack social capital and resources to fight back. It is obvious exceptions need to be made for how users identify themselves. Even the way these accounts were targeted all at once by anonymous users— someone on Secret is taking credit for flagging the accounts of drag queens — indicates there are deeper structural issues that shouldn’t be ignored.

Mike Woolson’s image for #MyNameIs

Contrast Facebook’s hostility with this headline from last month about another online community: “House Staffers Banned From Wikipedia Over Anti-Transgender Edits.”

That’s right. Congress was kicked off Wikipedia because of transphobia. For the third time.

Someone with an IP address connected to the US House of Representatives is a serial troll who has vandalized the pages of Chelsea Manning, Orange is the New Black, Trans Camp, and other content with bigoted edits. An editor banned the IP address for a pattern of serial abuse and “transphobic dreck.” After the banned was lifted, the troll came back to edit pages related to the Gamergate controversy. Now the IP address is on its fourth ban, blocked from editing Wikipedia for three months. There were no special privileges given to this IP address despite the institution’s prestige. It involves anyone in Congress who shares an IP address with this troll (who could very well could be a Congressman).

I don’t even mean to applaud this action. I point to this as an all too rare example of an online community acting responsibly (and in this case, managing itself). An abusive troll was held accountable for his actions. Left alone, the burden would continue to fall upon readers and editors made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome because of his actions. Something as fundamental as never misgendering a person should be basic understanding by now, even if mainstream news outlets still struggle with it. Baseline good community management is respecting our differences.

An online community demonstrates its worth by how it protects the safety and respects the self-determination of people from diverse experiences.

When I first joined the internet, about twenty years ago, it was place where I was free to be myself. I used chat rooms and message board where my age, race, and gender were not a factor. People engaged with my ideas and could not judge me for my looks or my real life identity. The progression from this nebulous space of screen names to “real names” and faces on social networks has failed to represent those of us that do not look like Mark Zuckerberg, or structure our lives like his.

There are platform conditions that encourage rather than deter online abuse. For example, Twitter’s limited privacy settings and ineffective anti-harassment protections have created on online space where rape threats are the norm. Rape threats! But Facebook is an example of how a platform itself can be hostile to vulnerable users. If only we could ban social networks for abuse. The “real names” policy is bigoted.