Facebook Has Tweaked Its Controversial 'Real Name' Policy

Facebook wants to make it harder for trolls to get users accounts suspended, and help flagged users keep their accounts.

Dec 15 2015, 6:00pm

Image: Mike Flippo/Shutterstock

In the last few months, Facebook has been under fire for its policy to not allow nicknames or pseudonyms on the network, and for requiring people to verify their real names if they're reported by another user.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced some changes to how it handles reports of use of fake names on the network, while also reiterating that it's not overhauling the real name policy.

"On Facebook, we require people to use the name their friends and family know them by," Justin Osofsky, the company's vice president of global operations, and product manager Todd Gage wrote in a blog post. "We're firmly committed to this policy, and it is not changing."

But the company is indeed making some changes after making a promise to improve the process in November. The main tweak is the addition of a more complex, and harder to abuse, process to report users. If someone wants to report a person for not using his or her real name, they will have to provide a more detailed explanation of why they're flagging the person, and go through various steps.

This screenshot shows what a user sees when reporting a fake account or a person using a fake name. (Image: Facebook).

Facebook made this change to avoid fake reports. The idea is to reduce the number of people who are forced to verify who they are, and make it harder for trolls to get users suspended. (For example, the British journalists Laurie Penny has had her account suspended for using a pseudonym, and has been a vocal critic of the policy.)

Moreover, people who have been reported will have a chance to tell Facebook that they have a "special circumstance" for using the name they are using, such as being victim of abuse and stalking, or being a sexual or ethnic minority. Flagged users can also keep access to their accounts while the reporting process is under way.

This screenshot shows how a person who's been reported can make a case to keep his or her account. (Image: Facebook)

This change, according to Facebook, was done to make it easier for people who have these "special circumstances" to make a case for using a name that might be different than the one they legally have.

"This additional information will help our review teams better understand the situation so they can provide more personalized support. This information will also help inform potential improvements we can make in the future," Osofsky and Gage wrote in the blog post.

These changes "can make a real impact" in the lives of "drag queens, clergy, and human rights defenders" who don't use a name that Facebook considers real, according to Peter Micek, the global policy and legal counsel at the digital rights group Access, part of the Nameless Coalition which asked Facebook to change this policy.

"Facebook's changes are welcome and they will make it harder for people to discriminate against vulnerable users."

"Facebook's changes are welcome and they will make it harder for people to discriminate against vulnerable users," Micek told Motherboard in an email. "Our 24-hour digital security helpline has received cases showing the old policy and its implementation harms human rights defenders, journalists, and others looking for ways to communicate online without fear of retaliation."

These changes, for now, are only available in the US and "on a limited basis," but Facebook promised that based on feedback from activists and users, it will "iterate and roll them out globally."

Also, the company promised that "these improvements are only the beginning."

After Facebook announced the changes, a Motherboard reader shared her experience with the policy.

"I have JUST been going through this nightmare after someone flagged me and I was forced to change my name to what is on my Drivers License. I don't use my real name online for safety reasons (I'm a survivor and a mother) as well as the political nature of my artwork which would jeopardize my employment. After I read the article, I responded to Facebook's support ticket on my name situation that I should be allowed to use my online moniker [redacted at the request of the reader] since it is actually the name that all my friends use with me in real life and for safety reasons. I am hoping they will allow me to change it back. I have so many friends who are trans or gender nonconforming as well as survivors of gender-based violence. Facebook is a community for many of us, and not to be allowed to use the name to which our identities are tied is discriminatory and cruel."

This post has been updated to add the reader's letter.