Facebook naming policy offensive, not safe

By Maria Castellucci

“What’s in a name?”

The famous line from “Romeo and Juliet” was made relevant once again when Facebook suspended users’ accounts for not using their legal names on their profiles.

Several gay and transgender entertainers reported their accounts were suspended for violating Facebook’s policy requiring that users display their legal names on their accounts, according to a Sept. 12 BBC News report. A petition with more than 2,000 signatures has since circulated on Change.org, calling on Facebook to allow individuals to use their preferred names.

Facebook is the most popular social media platform people use to connect—more than 70 percent of American adults are registered on the website, according to a 2013 Pew Research report. Taking into account the diversity of people who use the website, Facebook’s policy is an uneducated, embarrassing oversight. The policy is discriminatory toward those of the LGBTQ community and is disrespectful to those who have created an identity unrelated to their legal name.

This mistake is shocking from a social media platform that has been largely progressive and accepting of different gender identities. Last year, Facebook expanded its gender identity options to include more than 50, providing choices such as transgender and intersex. The naming policy is a huge setback for the popular social media site. For those who are transgender or are gender transitioning, changing their names is often a major part of the transition process. Preventing those people from expressing that aspect of their transition is offensive.

Despite criticism, Facebook stands by its decision, according to the BBC News report. On Facebook’s Account Settings page, it states that all users are required to provide their real names so people know exactly whom they are connecting with, ensuring Facebook remains a safe online community. For those who are known professionally by another name—a stage name—Facebook encourages users to create “Like” pages. However, Facebook reports that only 16 percent of fans view those pages and suggests that users sponsor posts on their profile, which they must pay for. This is a disservice to those who are known by a different name than their legal one and cannot be contacted because of Facebook’s restrictions.

This was the case for Olivia LaGarce, a woman who began the petition after her profile was suspended for violating the name policy. LaGarce said on the petition that the regulation impacts her livelihood. She is a drag queen, and Facebook has helped her network and expand her fan base under her stage name. Many celebrities like Lady Gaga have Facebook pages using a stage name with millions of likes, but they are not impacted by Facebook’s restriction policy because they already have an established fan base. But in the digital age, Facebook and other social media platforms are now an essential part of how performers gather and connect with fans, and this type of policy can be restrictive if they are known in their professional realm by a pseudonym rather than their legal name.

Facebook’s policy also allows users to add an alternate name or middle name to their profiles. This often leads to people adding immature or humorous names to their account. Facebook is clearly misguided in terms of the level of freedom it is allowing its users. If Facebook really wanted to enforce safety, it would reinstate its verification process for friends, in which the website asked users how they knew someone before accepting a friend request.

The naming restriction can also be dangerous. Some people use different names than their legal ones to protect themselves. Victims of sexual abuse or gay individuals who are not fully “out” often change their profile names from their legal name to a name that makes them less easily searched or feel safer, according to LaGarce’s Sept. 12 petition. According to the site, safety is Facebook’s No. 1 priority. However, this policy is putting its users in danger. Facebook’s defense of the name policy for safety reasons is also weak. Entering the social media realm is inherently dangerous because it connects strangers, some of whom can be threatening. People who use social media should be aware of these risks and practice tactics such as only accepting friend requests from people they know and setting their profile on private. Facebook users must be accountable for their own profiles, and Facebook should recognize that some users choose to display alternative names for valid reasons.

As the world’s most popular social media platform, it is important for Facebook to be safe but also respectful to the wide variety of people who use the site. Facebook’s well–meaning name policy is too narrow–minded in today’s digital age and is more offensive to those in the LGBTQ community than it is safe.