According to Facebook, the social media network is supposed to be “a community where people use their authentic identities.” That means signing up with the name you were born with or have adopted in real life. Facebook says that it uses an authentic names policy because people are much more likely to feel accountable for their social media behavior if they’re identified.
But Facebook’s policy is easily exploitable: Any user can potentially cause someone else’s account to be suspended, altered or permanently shut down simply by reporting their name as fake. As we’ve recently reported, Facebook has been questioning authentic Native American names since at least 2009.
Since late February when news of its flawed names policy resurfaced on The Last Real Indians blog, we’ve learned that one white supremacist group has bragged about triggering the removal of a high-profile Native user. We’ve also talked to 42 Natives about their past and present experiences with Facebook.
Here are some of the hoops that Native Americans say they’ve jumped through in order to restore their access to Facebook–the international social network they use to connect with loved ones and easily spread the word about their culture, identity, language, politics and activism.
How Stuff Works
You might assume that Facebook uses an algorithm to help root out fake names. We e-mailed the company’s press office in February. The person who responded to the e-mail said they were a spokesperson but would only talk to Colorlines on the condition that we not name them or use direct quotes.* The spokesperson says Facebook relies on user reports.
After the social network receives a fake name report, Facebook will sometimes disable the account in question and require users to submit copies of their personal identification for review. Accepted forms include ”any government-issued ID,” two copies of documents such as bank statements and library cards, or a combination of thereof.
The Facebook spokesperson says that members of the company’s staff of about 10,000 are charged with reviewing each ID manually. The employee refused to tell us how long it takes an employee to review a disputed name but shared that outside contractors don’t do this work.
One big problem: Facebook workers–particularly those who live outside of the United States and Canada–may not be familiar with Native naming conventions. To an employee in Germany, for example, the Shoshone surname “Has No Horse” might lack context and appear to be fake.
“It’s a cultural issue,” says one software engineer at a giant tech company who spoke to Colorlines on condition of anonymity because his company would expect to pre-approve (and control) his comments. “Names can be messy. [Facebook] is caught in a trap with people who just aren’t familiar with Native names.”
If you’ve never had your Facebook account disabled, it might be hard to imagine everything you lose. It’s not just your connections to friends and family but your photos, messages, notes, level in games such as Candy Crush Saga, and access to the pages you administer. In our interviews with Natives, we found that losing access to this chunk of digital life isn’t just annoying, it’s isolating and nothing short of traumatic.
‘Ghost Activism’ by White Separatists: The Case of Dana Lone Hill
We first talked to Dane Lone Hill in February, after Facebook disabled her account and required the “Pointing With Lips” author to hand over several forms of identification to restore it. Lone Hill told Colorlines that she submitted the requested documents but that her account remained suspended for nearly a week until her story, which she first wrote about in an essay for the Last Real Indians blog, made headlines. (According to the tech news site Venture Beat, Lone Hill has said that the reactivation only happened because Colorlines wrote about her case.)
Facebook’s spokesperson insists that the company doesn’t proactively search through user handles to root out violators of the names policy. The problem with user-generated reporting is that is that anyone, even white separatists, can report legitimate accounts as fake.
Take the white supremacist group Pioneer Little Europe (PLE). The “leaderless…settler-styled movement or sometimes known as separatism [sic]” PLE grabbed headlines in 2013 when a devotee named Craig Cobb announced his plans to turn the entire town of Leith, N. D. into a settlement of “white nationalists.”
PLE has several pages on Facebook. On one, a user called Pale Horse boasts about targeting Dana Lone Hill:
Atlee Yarrow, who runs PLE’s website, says he doesn’t administer any of its Facebook pages but does know some of the people who do. In an e-mail to Colorlines, Yarrow, wrote, “[T]he main admin is ‘Pale Horse’ who took his ‘Native’ name during events of Leith, North Dakota.”
The name “Pale Horse” likely refers to the color of a white person’s skin, but it may also be a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Bible’s Book of Revelations–one of whom rides in on a pale horse and represents death.
PLE’s gloating points to a serious vulnerability in Facebook’s enforcement of its name policy. The same social media network that hosts white supremacist fan pages has required Native American users to prove their identities.
Rejection of Tribal ID: The Case of Chase Iron Eyes
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is located in what is now called South Dakota and North Dakota. The northwest area of its reservation is just 60 miles away from the town of Leith. In 2013, when Cobb was trying to create his settlement for white supremacists, a tribal law attorney named Chase Iron Eyes organized dozens of marchers from his nation to go to the town and stand against PLE.
Iron Eyes says that in late summer 2014 Facebook disabled his personal account and asked him for ID to restore it. That account suspension meant that Iron Eyes–who also co-founded Last Real Indians–also lost access as an administrator to the site’s Facebook page.
“I turned in my Standing Rock Nation ID twice, but Facebook kept my account disabled anyway,” Iron Eyes says. His tribal identification allows him to vote in North Dakota, but Facebook required a state ID.
Iron Eyes, who was highly visible during the protests in Leith, suspects that PLE targeted him, but he hasn’t been able to prove it. Ultimately he holds Facebook responsible for what he calls discrimination. “So many of us Lakota people have these two-word last names that were sometimes handed down [in] ceremonious and meaningful ways. Facebook has belittled and singled us out because of it,” says Iron Eyes, who adds that the social network didn’t offer him an explanation about why his account was flagged in the first place.
Refusing a Real Name: The Case of Dezbah Bahee
Dezbah Bahee is pretty proud of her name, which appears on her birth certificate and all her documents. In Diné Bizaad, or Navajo language, “Dezbah” means “warrior.” But, if you want to find Bahee on Facebook, you’re going to have to look for the nickname “Dezzie.”
“I use my real name on all my social media profiles,” explains Bahee, who first signed up to Facebook about six years ago. “However, with Facebook, when I entered my name, the program notified me that I was not allowed to use ‘nicknames.’”
Bahee, who works at Out of Your Backpack Media in Flagstaff, Az., says she was forced to choose a different name. Ironically, she went with “Dezzie,” a nickname she sometimes uses for people who are not Diné or have a hard time saying “Dezbah.” ”I was completely confused and kind of mad,” says Bahee.
Last year Bahee tried to change her handle to her real name, “Dezbah.” As of last week, Bahee says she still wasn’t allowed to do so.
Bahee is one of several women who told me they weren’t allowed to sign up to Facebook using their real first name, ”Dezbah.” The troubling irony, of course, is that although Facebook discourages the use of some nicknames, these women had to use a nickname or an outright fake name in order to obtain an account.
Two Names and You’re Out: The Case of Angel White Eyes
Angel Cante Skuya White Eyes is from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film producer with Indigene Entertainment says she originally signed up for Facebook around 2006 using her first and last name: Angel White Eyes. Sometime in 2010, she altered her handle to reflect her first and middle name, “Angel Cante Skuyah.” She says that about two weeks later, she decided to switch back to “Angel White Eyes.” It was then that her name was challenged. “They disabled my account saying I was using a fake name that wasn’t allowed on Facebook,” says White Eyes. The e-mail she received from the company was harsh (see below)–it said she would “not be able to reactivate this account for any reason” and added that the corporation’s decision was final.White Eyes set out to prove her identity. “I had to send a scan of a U.S. government-issued ID,” she says. She submitted a copy of her South Dakota driver’s license and she was able to get her account back, along with an apology from Facebook. But what happened nearly five years ago still sticks with her. “Having to prove [my name] on the biggest social media website where there are tons of people using fake names made me feel like I wasn’t worthy enough to even be considered a person in their standards,” says White Eyes, who points to names such as ”Pseu Donym,” a blatantly false handle that many individuals use on the site.
Lakota? Fine. English? Not So Much: The Case of Shirley Thunder Horse
If you search Shirley Thunder Horse on Facebook, you won’t find her by that name. That’s because when she signed up in 2008 she joined as “Shirley Tasunke Wakinyan” (“Tasunke Wakinyan” means “Thunder Horse” in Lakota). A year later, she wanted to switch to the English translation on her birth certificate so that politicians she was campaigning for could find her. But she wasn’t allowed to do so on grounds that “Shirley Thunder Horse” was fake.
Several Native who spoke with Colorlines have had the same experience: They sign up using a variation of their name in their indigenous language only to be told later that they cannot change it to reflect the name that appears on their birth certificate and most people know them by.
Severing a Name: The Case of Lance Browneyes
Lance Browneyes says he signed up for Facebook in 2009. About a month ago, he says, the company disabled his acccount, prompting him to “update” his name.” He was then asked to enter his authentic name–but Facebook wouldn’t allow his real last name, “Browneyes.” It did, however, accept “Brown.” And so, for two days, while Facebook reviewed Browneyes’s documents and until he threatened to sue, he was listed on the social network as “Lance Brown,” which isn’t his real name. Browneyes has provided Colorlines with several screenshots of Facebook. Here’s one:
“I didn’t even want to send them my information and regret doing it now; they have all my info,” says Browneyes. The Oglala Lakota graphic artist says he has contacted several class-action attorneys about starting a lawsuit against Facebook to address what he calls racial discrimination. “I truly feel we are being targeted and racially profiled because we have been using Facebook as a tool to bring awareness to the racism Natives still face to this day.” Browneyes adds that he never had a problem with his name on Facebook until he began speaking up against the Washington D.C. football team’s racist name.
Squishing Correct Names Together to Make a Fake: The Case of Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford
Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford first signed up for Facebook around 2009 with her maiden name, “Juliana Brown Eyes.” The musician who plays bass guitar in the rock duo Scatter Their Own says that because she’s a performer, people sometimes assume that “Brown Eyes” is just a stage name.
About two years ago, she says Facebook demanded that she prove her identity. Living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Brown Eyes-Clifford says she didn’t have easy access to a scanner.
Since she was about to get married, the Oglala Lakota musician took on her soon-to-be-husband’s last name, “Clifford,” and extracted her own, “Brown Eyes.” On Facebook she called herself “Juliana Clifford.” She says that’s how it appeared for about two months until she was able to purchase a printer/scanner in order to be able to keep a version of her real name on Facebook.
Sometime after she was married in 2013, Brown Eyes-Clifford scanned her photo identification using the machine she bought for the express purpose of keeping her Facebook account intact. The corporation finally accepted “Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford.”
The catch is that Facebook made her last name one word. Instead of “Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford,” she appears as “Juliana BrownEyes-Clifford.”
“It was just so much trouble and I was angry it took so long,” she says of restoring her account. Tired of dealing with this aspect of the social network, she has accepted a version of her name that comes close but isn’t accurate.
Cherokee Syllabary is Not Welcome: The Case of ᏩᏕ ᎦᎵᏍᎨᏫ
The Cherokee syllabary was created by Sequoyah about 200 years ago, and it is the way many Cherokees write. ᏩᏕ ᎦᎵᏍᎨᏫ–whose name is “Wahde Galisgewi” in the Latin alphabet English speakers use–is one of them. Galisgewi works for the Cherokee Nation as a history and cultural specialist and he teaches Cherokee language.
Galisgewi says he signed up for Facebook around 2009. He says the company hassled him about changing his name a few years ago but not much came of it because he successfully appealed it.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Facebook abruptly disabled Galisgewi’s account telling him that his name was reported as fraudulent. Galisgewi was required to present government identification, so he provided a state driver’s licence with his name in English and his signature in Cherokee syllabary. Because he always signs his name this way it was an easy transaction. But many people who speak and write Cherokee don’t have a state identification that includes their signature in Cherokee syllabary.
Galisgewi says Facebook began a Cherokee syllabary project, and he was working on the translation team in 2009 and 2010. To his knowledge, the company has shut the project down. Facebook’s spokesperson did not respond to questions about the Cherokee syllabary project.
Forcing Users to Invent Fake Names: The Case of Countless Natives on Facebook
More than a dozen Natives I’ve spoken with for this story have changed their names for all of the reasons reported above. Some, citing privacy concerns, didn’t want to hand over their U.S. government-issued documents. Others submitted their identification only to have their accounts shut down, permanently.
The Natives, who preferred not to be identified by their real names in this story for fear of, once again, losing their Facebook accounts, overwhelmingly use standard English-language names: “James Johnson” is one is one; “Sarah Brown” is another. All say that Facebook has never disabled any of their accounts with these names.
Facebook Sorta Explains
In October 2014, in response to LGBTQ people who were negatively impacted by the authentic names policy, Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, offered an apology ”to the affected community of drag queens, drag kings, transgender, and extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we’ve put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks.”
Plenty of people of all stripes who use names they weren’t born with have had their accounts disabled over the years. But Natives argue that Facebook’s policy systematically invalidates their birth names.
In a March 10 response to new questions regarding Facebook’s suspension of Native accounts, the spokesperson we talked to responded, via e-mail, with the same quote he’d e-mailed us in February:
“We are 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 us root out accounts created for malicious purposes, like harassment, fraud, impersonation and hate speech. Over the last several months, we’ve 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. We have more work to do, and our teams will continue to prioritize these improvements.”
The question is when and how this work is going to be done.
**Post has been updated since publication. For reader clarity we added how we reached the Facebook spokesperson. To clarify one of their stipulations, we added the word “direct” before “quotes.”*