Without once using the word "change," Facebook has announced it's "improving the way it's enforcing its 'real name' policy." But even without calling it a change, this represents the biggest evolution by the social network to allow users to self-identify since it introduced a wide variety of gender profiles in recognition of the nonconforming users who don’t fit the traditional binary.
The announcement Friday came in the form of a letter from Facebook's vice president of growth, Alex Schultz, to users and groups that have petitioned Facebook for changes.
They include drag queens, drag kings, transgender people, and others, including Native Americans, who used aliases or pseudonyms and were reported for having "fake names."
Most famously, a trans woman who goes by "Zip" — who helped Facebook expand its gender profiles — was blocked because the social media site deemed her name not "real" enough.
Facebook spokesman William Nevius tells The Advocate, contrary to reports, the name policy stands; what's new is the way in which it is "implemented," which Nevius frankly admitted could be better.
Nevius described what's happening as "a process" and said that while the policy itself is not changing, Facebook recognizes that users need to be able to confirm their name more easily when asked, and the company needs to reduce the number of people being asked to verify their name.
Pseudonyms and aliases are still not permitted, he says, but by following steps outlined online, users can register the names they’re known by to friends, family, and fans. In his letter, Schulz described what happens next as a "test":
"We now plan to test a new process that will let people provide more information about their circumstances. This should help our Community Operations team better understand the situation. It will also help us better understand the reasons why people can’t currently confirm their name, informing potential changes we make in the future."
Schultz wrote that Facebook officials "understand the challenges for many transgender people when it comes to formally changing one’s name. That’s why we’re making changes now and in the future, and will continue to engage with you and all who are committed to looking after the most vulnerable people using our product.”
Here's what Facebook is doing:
Users who are challenged will be invited to provide details on why they’ve chosen a certain name for their account if it’s not their legal name.
Facebook is reassuring users who are flagged for using a possibly inauthentic name that real people are on hand to help them, to give them "more personalized help throughout the confirmation process" and "advising them on the various types of non-legal documents they can provide."
And a new requirement will be part of the confirmation process, directed at the people who flag a name as fake, according to Schultz. Those reporting an allegedly fake name will be required to provide detailed information, in an effort to prevent trolling, a frequent complaint among trans users.
“We are deeply invested in making this better,” Schultz wrote. “I’ve seen first hand how people — including LGBT people — can be bullied online by people using fake or impersonating accounts.”
To analyze how big that problem is, Facebook revealed for the first time publicly that it conducted a one-week experiment this past spring, comparing a group of users reported for allegedly using fake names against a control group. The conclusion? "Bullying, harassment or other abuse on Facebook is eight times more likely to commited by people using names other than their own than by the rest of the Facebook community," Schultz wrote.
Nevius tells The Advocate he has no details on how large the group was, and provided no other information other than it being conducted over one week in the spring.
This is not the first attempt by Facebook to close the book on this controversy since it erupted last year. The conflict and attempts to get the social media giant to modify its policy spurred the #MyNameIs hashtag, a Kickstarter petition, and public protests.
The furor reached a new level over the summer when protesters carried signs, spelling out "Shame on FB," in San Francisco's Pride Parade, which is sponsored in part by Facebook.
But to those arguing for the website to drop its name policy altogether, Schultz made it clea: that's not happening. Facebook’s “authentic identity” policy will be maintained, Schultz wrote, saying he believes it reduces trolling by making people accountable for their actions online.
“When people use the name others know them by, they are more accountable for what they say, making it more difficult to hide behind an anonymous name to harass, bully, spam or scam someone else,” said Schultz.
Earlier this month, organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote an open letter to Facebook, asking for the policy to be changed to “provide equal treatment and protection for all who use and depend on Facebook as central platform for online expression and communication.”
“It’s a balance to get this right,” Schultz wrote in reply. “We want to find a line that minimizes bullying but maximizes the potential for people to be their authentic selves on Facebook.”
As to when these "improvements" will take effect, there's no firm date. Schultz wrote:
"These improvements will take some time to test and implement, but a team is working on this and people should start seeing the tests in December. Between now and then, we will be gathering additional feedback from the community to make sure we are on the right track. Once the changes are rolled out, we will learn how people use them and continue to make further improvements."
Read Schultz's letter here, read Facebook's policy on names that it considers acceptable here, and find the list of forms of identification accepted by Facebook here. You can read a Facebook blog post from June that details the evolution of the name policy here.