Three cheers for journalist and radical enfant terrible Laurie Penny! For her temporary – and unintended – dismissal from Facebook for failing to use a name acceptable to the powers that be has thrown much-needed light on a dangerous and distressing approach to individual identity.
This is their ‘authentic names’ policy, their demand that users conform to a standard of self-designation dreamt up by the Californian suits. It has been placing increasing strain on relationships between Facebook and the wider LGBTI community.
Because although outwardly about truth and security it is very much more about business and a certain narrow idea of decent ‘normal’ names. Call yourself Mike or Chris, as some senior executives at Facebook do, and despite the fact that your birth certificate probably refers to Michael or Christopher, that is fine.
Call yourself Sarah, though, when your official documents say Tracy, and you could be in trouble. Banned. Blocked. And forced to hand over a collection of highly intimate proofs before they let you back on.
The policy has not lacked its moments. It backfired spectacularly a few weeks back when Facebook removed the profile of internationally renowned gender variant visual artist, Del LaGrace Volcano.
So what if Del had already provided not one but two passports (one Swedish, one American) setting out their claim to that name in black and white: the name ‘sounded fake’; it had to go!
Del was lucky: a high profile allowed them to leapfrog hurdles that have defeated others. But otherwise it has been a sad couple of months. No more will I click on to Facebook and meet familiar friends, as the Lying Scotsman, or Mike Da Hat. In their place, individuals with grey ordinary names that create not community, but a sense of disconnection.
So what, though? This is an issue for a minority within a minority. Does it really matter? To which the answer given, loud and clear by the rapidly growing #mynameis campaign is a resounding yes. Growing from initial discussions between Facebook and the US drag community, who objected to being banned for using their stage names, #mynameis now unites a range of interest groups.
Indigenous Americans, who do not use the same ‘respectable’ naming conventions. Trans people. Gay groups – particularly those representing young people who first come out anonymously. Women, abused and in fear of being tracked by their abusers. All have good reason not to bow to Facebook’s decree: yet bit by bit, all are being forced to conform or to go.
There is an intense hypocrisy to this campaign. Facebook claims it is about security: though in fact the best support for security is not insisting on a narrow policy around naming, but on shutting down the trolls and bullies who seem to survive any number of referrals to the moderators.
The policy represents a twofold attack on minority expression. First Facebook is rejecting individual self-expression, an approach that sits ill with their oft-expressed support for ‘free speech’. But of course, when Facebook reference free speech they really mean the freedom of a privileged class: freedom to make jokes about rape and violence and faggots; freedom to organise attacks on lgbt groups; freedom to post soft porn. Certainly not the freedom to self-express, or to post pictures in which a bare breast features in a non-sexual context such as breast-feeding.
Last week, one of their delightful moderators adjudged a comment urging a woman to go sit on a razor blade as ‘not hate speech’. Previously, it has taken several weeks, and high level intervention, before Facebook was prepared to close down a Serbia-based group urging its members to violence against anyone who dared turn up to Belgrade Pride.
Worse, if they are to be believed, and the recent rash of bannings is not the result of an active campaign against ‘inauthentic’ names, then it is clear that Facebook is happy to encourage the basest instincts in their fellow human beings. The same impulse that led individuals to denounce their friends and neighbors to the SS, later the stasi, is now being co-opted in a cleansing of social media and in pursuit of a policy that Facebook well know has no basis in law in the UK and much of the world outside the US.
It is a charter for bullies: a green light to anyone who wishes to use Facebook’s policy as means to intimidate any minority they dislike. The trans community, especially, has identified multiple incidents where it appears that an individual has only to call out transphobia, to find themselves and their account suspended. Because ‘inauthenticity’.
There are signs of fightback: calls for the UK government to defend our legal framework against American arrogance; demonstrations and demands that Facebook be summarily booted from any association with Pride around the world until they do better. The campaign to remove their name from various US prides has so far fallen flat.
Focus now shifts to Dublin, Facebook’s European base, and a city where Facebook staff have previously marched alongside the LGBTQI communities.
For now, though, the bans and the exclusions continue. And this week, I shall return to a Facebook deprived of Laurie Penny’s alter ego: and Laurie herself will return to a place that is a measurably less safe one for her to be.