Facebook Is Still Making It Difficult for Native Americans to Use Their Real Names

Facebook's name policy has hindered Native Americans and drag queens from using their names on the site for years. Yesterday, a coalition staged a protest against the policy at Facebook headquarters.

Allegra Ringo

Photo by Gareth Gooch

The Facebook "real name" problem came to light in October 2014, when Shane Creepingbear, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, tweeted that he had been kicked off Facebook (on Columbus Day, no less) for having a "fake name." This wasn't the first time this had happened to Creepingbear, who is, in fact, using his given name for his Facebook profile. It had happened twice before.

"The first time it happened, years ago, I didn't have to do much," Creepingbear told me. "The second time it happened I also didn't think much of it. I just sent them a picture of my state ID. The third time was when it really struck me."

He was in the middle of a Facebook chat, when suddenly it was cut off, and Creepingbear was prompted to "confirm [his] identity."

He started to go through the motions to confirm his identity, but stopped at one message that said "it looks like that name violates our name standards."

All screenshots courtesy of Tiffany Pathkiller and Shane Creepingbear

At that point, he became frustrated.

Creepingbear took screenshots of what he was experiencing, and posted the photos to Tumblr and Twitter, using hashtags like #racism and #erasure. Media outlets like Colorlines picked up on the story. Eventually, a friend with media connections put Creepingbear in direct touch with Facebook. Facebook corrected the problem for Creepingbear—but not for others. Many people are under the impression that the issue has been corrected because Facebook had technically addressed the issue back in February with a wishy-washy statement that said they had "more work to do." But as recently as this week, Native American users are still experiencing the same problem.

Activists for the #MyNameIs coalition traveled to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California yesterday, June 1, to protest. They carried signs that bore slogans like "Fake Name Reporting Punishes Identity, Not Behavior" and "Stop Badgering People for ID. My Name Is as Real as Yours." These activists included Native Americans and LGBT people, some of whom have been affected by the "real name" policy as well (drag performers, in particular, have reacted to the policy that requires them to use their legal names).

In a press release, Samuel White Swan-Perkins, one of the event's organizers, pointed out that Facebook was repeating history perhaps without knowing it: "Perhaps Facebook is not aware but an entire generation of Native children lost their cultural names after the Dawes Act of 1887 was implemented... Whatever the name is, it's not for you to question. Natives deserve better treatment, as do our LGBTIQA and other allies."

Photo by Gareth Gooch

Lil Miss Hot Mess, a drag queen and co-organizer of the #MyNameIsProtest, added: "This dangerous and discriminatory policy is yet another indication that Facebook is out of touch with the majority of its users, especially those who fall outside of the company's employee demographics are predominantly straight, white, and male. Whether you use Facebook or not, this fight is about the future of digital culture, including everyone's right to maintain privacy and express their truest selves."

More Facebook grievances: Facebook is suspending prison inmates' accounts. Read about it on Motherboard.

I asked a Facebook spokesperson if they had done anything to address the problem since their "more work to do" statement. The spokesperson told me Facebook is "committed to ensuring that all members of the Facebook community can use the names that they use in real life. Having people use their authentic names makes them more accountable, and also helps [Facebook] root out accounts created for malicious purposes, like harassment, fraud, impersonation, and hate speech. Over the last several months, [Facebook has] made some significant improvements in the implementation of this standard, including enhancing the overall experience and expanding the options available for verifying an authentic name. [They] have more work to do, and [their] teams will continue to prioritize these improvements."

He also told me that "in reference to the expanded options, option three [in Facebook's list of accepted forms of ID] is new." Option three states: "If you don't have an ID that shows your authentic name as well as your photo or date of birth, you can provide two forms of ID from option two [which includes non-government issued ID like credit cards and pay stubs] above, and then provide a government ID that includes a date of birth or photo that matches the information on your profile. [Facebook will not] add the name or other information from the government ID to your account."

That doesn't solve the problem. Plus, as Creepingbear pointed out, "to 'confirm a name is real,' you have to turn over sensitive personal information (driver's license, etc.) to an organization that has a terrible history of privacy violations and poor information control."

Facebook has a set of internal name guidelines that, among other things, advise the user not to include "words, phrases, or nicknames in place of a middle name." This might be what's causing Facebook to recognize Native names as "not real." But if that's the case, that rule is obviously way too broad. As we've learned, some people have "phrases" in their given names, and it's not a joke or an "account created for malicious purposes." It's just a non-white name.

Photo by Gareth Gooch

Facebook keeps the details of its "real name" enforcement system closely guarded in an effort to prevent people from gaming the system. What we do know, though, is that Facebook administrators do not go searching for "fake" names. Instead, users report what they believe to be inappropriate names, and the Facebook team then determines the legitimacy of these reports. This means that multiple times, other users reported Creepingbear's name, and multiple times, Facebook agreed with them.

Creepingbear agrees with Samuel White Swan-Perkins that Facebook's policy "supports the narrative of the centuries-long occupation and erasure of native land and culture. Facebook continues to insist that [Native American] names do not meet their name 'standards.' These 'standards' are a direct reflection of what society as a whole deems 'normal.'"

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Indeed, there have been scarce (if any) complaints about the policy from anyone who's not part of a marginalized community. The policy has come under fire before, most famously when it forced drag queens to use their "real names," as previously mentioned. Facebook agreed to work with drag queen activists in order to address the problem, and they appear to have fixed it—for a select group of people. The drag queens in question are no longer locked out of their accounts, nor is Creepingbear and a handful of other Native people who publicly brought the issue to light. But as far as anyone can tell, there have been no changes across the board that will prevent this from happening again.

Dana Lone Hill, a Native American activist, had at one point planned to bring a class-action lawsuit against Facebook. However, Lone Hill was unavailable for comment, and I was unable to find any updates on the lawsuit after February of this year.

Facebook may not have malicious intent behind its "real name" policy, but the breadth of its scope, as well as the language used to enforce it, is exclusionary. They definitely have "more work to do," and that work is acknowledging that Native people—and their real names—exist.

Follow Allegra Ringo on Twitter.