Online abuse is a perennial problem, and there’s a perennial proposed solution: Real names policies. If only users were forced to use their real names, this wouldn’t happen, because people would be ashamed to have this kind of behaviour associated with themselves. Networks like Facebook push such policies big time, and periodically they get proposed for sites like Twitter as well. Usually the people proposing them are the people least likely to be on the receiving end of abuse, which may be why they don’t understand why this is not effective.
Privacy, the malleability of a ‘name,’ and the way people actually interact all come into play when looking at these policies, and they all have to be understood by people who think that this is a magical solution to abuse. (If it was, don’t you think that online abuse would be a thing of the past?)
One immediate consequence of ‘real names’ policies is that they endanger people who cannot use their legal names online, for any number of reasons. Those reasons are specific to the individual and people shouldn’t need to justify their preference for privacy, but here are a few: They aren’t out about their gender or sexual orientation to friends and family; they engage in activities taboo for their profession (like casual sex or drug use for teachers); they are employed in a profession that has attached stigma (like sex work); they’re working around workplace policies like bans on social media use; they’re whistleblowers; they’re political dissidents or activists; or they’re being stalked or threatened and want to be able to engage online without endangering themselves or their families. This is just scratching the surface.
Generally speaking, the more privilege someone has, the less the concern with things like this. Either they aren’t in these positions at all, or they feel comfortable being open about their identities because the risk is pretty low. When you require users of a service to provide their names in order to participate, therefore, you inevitably push out people on the margins. That reduces the diversity of your service, but it also reduces the diversity of the internet, as people with thoughts and comments to add to the world cannot do so, because it is too dangerous. That means missing out on news from the Native community, or not hearing from trans activists, or never knowing about abuses of power, or any number of other things.
Such policies have the effect of endangering the people they are supposed to help.
What’s in a name?
People touting ‘real names’ policies generally have a legal name that they use exclusively across all settings — José Morales is Jose Morales everywhere he goes, everyone knows him by that name, he has always had that name and he always will have that name.
Not everyone approaches the world that way, though. Some people use pseudonyms that are known, stable, and well-established — sometimes they are even informally linked with their real identities. Maybe José interacts online as Gidget, or uses that pseudonym in specific concepts, such as when he’s writing Star Trek slash fiction. Everyone knows him as Gidget. That’s his name. When he meets up with people in meatspace, that’s what they call him. On social media, he goes by Gidget because people would never think to look for José Morales.
Or maybe he has a nickname that people use interchangeably with his wallet name depending on context and setting. He’s ‘Spider’ just as much as he is ‘José.’ Sure, he could go as ‘José ‘Spider’ Morales,’ but he doesn’t call himself that, ever. He calls himself one or the other. His grad school friends all know him as Spider, but people at work call him José.
Or maybe her legal name is José Morales, but her actual name is Ximena Morales. If she used her legal name online, no one would know who people were talking about — and she would instantly be outed as trans.
Many people have lots of different names they use in different settings with different people. They’re not trying to be sneaky or commit fraud. We understand that our teacher, Mrs. Wei, is the same person as Suzanne Wei, who is also the same person as Suzanne, and also Suzie, but also Cherry Bomb and Book Bag. These policies ignore the fact that nearly everyone on Earth is known by multiple names.
Moreover, such policies also tend to privilege specific kinds of names over others. Numerous Native and Indigenous people have been flagged on Facebook for using ‘fake names.’ People with long names, or multi-part names, are also routinely flagged as fraudulent. People with non-Western names may also get flagged — sometimes they only have one given name, sometimes part of their name looks like a word in English, sometimes their names are difficult to transliterate, or they’re rejected for having punctuation in their names.
Okay but if people are forced to use their ‘real’ names, they’re more thoughtful about how they act, right? I have no idea why people continue to think this in the face of all evidence to the contrary, but they do. Here’s the thing: People who are abusive assholes are either going to do it no matter what, or aren’t aware that what they are doing is abusive, so they don’t think that whatever it is will reflect poorly on them if it’s shown to, say, their bosses or family or friends.
Case in point: Some of the most abusive behaviour I’ve ever experienced has come from people communicating under their legal names. I have received death threats from people writing from their work email accounts. I have been abused on social media by people using their legal names, sometimes from official accounts associated with employers (I’m looking at you, Village Voice, Dan Savage, Gawker, and Neil Gaiman, among many, many others). Have I received anonymous or pseudonymous abuse? Sure. It hasn’t been nearly as explicit, threatening, frightening, or suppressive. I get people calling me a dumb fat whore from throwaway Twitter accounts all the time. Those people are annoying. They are not the people I care about.
The problem with abuse isn’t that people feel ‘comfortable being abusive under the cover of a fake name.’ The problem is that people feel comfortable being abusive, and that many platforms tolerate and sometimes actively cultivate their behaviour. There are tools we could be applying to address abuse on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. People who experience abuse, including me, have repeatedly made suggestions. We have been ignored.
Image: For Bernadette, Christian Belangér, Flickr