The world loves Facebook.
Unlike Myspace, Bebo and a myriad of other social networking platforms, Facebook has stuck around whilst others have withered on the ‘Vine’ (shit pun intended). Facebook is the one even your nan is on.
It’s become so ubiquitous that it’s difficult or even impossible to access many other websites without logging in via a Facebook account – a few years back when I wanted to delete my Facebook I realised that in doing so, I’d lose all my Spotify account data. Little by little, these kind of connections entrench Facebook in our digital and corporeal worlds, making disentanglement impossible.
Though we continue to embrace Facebook and while away an average of 50 minutes per day on the platform (or its sister apps, Instagram and Messenger), it’s clear that users are uncomfortable with the privacy price that they’re paying for the privilege. Although Facebook claims to take individual privacy seriously and gives us the facility to limit the audience of each post, one glance at the “people you may know” will show you how Facebook’s increasingly sophisticated algorithms are tracking not just old school friends but where you went last night and who you met there.
One privacy issue that has come under constant controversy is the so-called ‘authentic identity’ policy which states that you must use your ‘real’ name on Facebook. Facebook’s rules state that ‘the name on your profile should be the name that your friends call you in everyday life’, which is slightly ambiguous as this is not necessarily the same as your ‘legal’ name. Having been through a handful of husbands, I’ve had more than a few legal names, none of which any of my current day friends would recognise me by.
The reasons that people might not want to be easily discoverable on Facebook are many and varied. Some are nefarious (like avoiding being placed at a crime scene) but the vast majority are much more prosaic. School teachers, NHS workers and senior public servants might all have good reasons to not want their private lives on show – and whilst they can limit the audience of our posts, the chance of someone within their friends list screenshotting and sharing information remains a real risk. Who can say that they know and 100% trust every single one of their Facebook friends?
There’s a more worrying element to the policy, though. Figures from Amnesty International back up the claim that gendered violence disproportionally affects women globally, and in the UK the latest figures from the CPS for the year ending 2016 shows prosecutions for domestic abuse at an all time high, with 92% of the defendants male and 8% female. We also know that two women a week are killed by their partner or former partner. There are real and tangible reasons why a women would want to disguise her identity from a former partner online whilst still retaining access to her friendship network via Facebook.
Then we come to even more marginalised groups of people – those women of colour, gender transitioning people and current and former sex workers such as myself, for whom the risk of violence and harassment is even higher.
I decided to change my name on Facebook when a client popped up as a ‘person you may know’. I could see his full name and profile picture, so I assumed he could also see my real (non-work identity) name. As well as changing my name, for a while I so spooked that I only used avatars as my profile picture, but after a while I relaxed this a bit. At least I knew that without my real name, clients couldn’t trace my address from the electoral roll.
As I moved away from my geographic roots and made new friends, (many of whom I met online) more and more of them came to know me by my Facebook display name and I began to use it myself. I didn’t feel I was doing anything particularly wrong, especially since so many other people were doing the same. In fact, I just did a quick check and 60 of my 200-ish friends on my suspended Facebook account have names that are either intentionally misspelled, omit their surname or are obviously plain fake.
My name was, in Facebook’s terms ‘the name my friends know me by’ and the name I used all over other social media platforms. I felt it was legitimate. The shadowy figures at Facebook HQ must have thought so too, as they allowed me to make the change back in 2015 without requesting any documentation.
Everything was ticking over merrily, (except for the fact we still live in a patriarchal society and all that), but my online life was reasonably untroubled. Until two things happened: 1. I wrote a Facebook post exposing a man who had been systematically targeting and harassing women online, and 2. I published some research that highlighted institutional sexism within the entertainment industry. Cue backlash. I know as a blogger (I run several separate blogs on other issues) that voicing an opinion online will attract dissent, and I welcome positive debate. Unfortunately, some people’s only response to a women voicing their opinion is to seek to harm her, and as a result I had my account reported for non-adherence to the name policy.
I can’t say I was enormously surprised.
We already know that women are overwhelmingly more likely to face gendered abuse in the real world; why should things be any different online? New research published by Brunel and Goldsmiths Universities show a higher proportion of men than women use Facebook for antisocial motives, including harassment and trolling, and we know that this is more likely to be directed towards women.
So men police women’s movement’s in every sphere of life: whether hidden away in the home, on the street with catcalls about their appearance or in the dark night on streets they dare not walk down. And now Facebook is acting as an enabler to allow this same misogyny into their online spaces.
We have the perfect storm of vulnerable women who need to use a screen alias to protect them from men, and an online reporting system that means that the same disgruntled, pathetic man-babies can press the ‘report’ button and tell the teacher should a woman displease their fragile ego. And Facebook is enabling this continuum of male violence in the public sphere into the online realm. Bravo.
So, dearest Mark Zuckerberg, this is institutionalised misogyny 101, and look, I haven’t even charged you for the lesson.