By Jess Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
A couple of weeks ago, I was at my wits’ end with Facebook.
A friend of mine, “Ashley” (name changed for privacy) recently came out as trans and wanted to update her first name and gender on her profile. This should be fairly easy, right? But she wasn’t able to change it. Facebook required various pieces of documentation proving Ashley was her name. This hasn’t always been an issue. Years ago I changed my name to “Jessica Rabbid” to reflect my blog/pin-up modeling name, and to hide potential employers from my political views and lingerie pictures. My friend Courtney changed her handle to “Court Knee” in order to keep herself unsearchable. Also, we all have the Facebook friend from high school that made her profile name something like “Karen LiveLaughLove Smith.” We get that you love your life, Karen. We still don’t want to join your MLM.
Getting her name changed was really important to Ashley. Social media is where a lot of folks come out to begin with. Facebook can be a haven for queer and marginalized folks who might not otherwise have support in their every day lives. We messaged back and forth for hours for a couple of days. We posted on our individual pages, asked LGBTQ organizations what to do, and tried like hell to get in touch with someone from Facebook, which was impossible. Facebook provides a customer service line for business accounts, but not individuals. “I don’t like that, honestly: they have all of my information, and yet I can’t access someone to talk to,” said Ashley.
Around the same time, another friend reported a similar experience. “I changed my name legally and had to provide legal documentation in order to do so. Facebook is transphobic. They made the conversation as uncomfortable as possible.”
Deflated but not deterred, Ashley and I looked over the list of documents that would be acceptable. Nearly all of the documents required an official government name change. Should she choose to go through a pro-bono program for the name change, it would take months. Changing it on her own would also take time, and cost a big chunk of change. We discussed signing her up for a subscription to Vogue with her new name, awaiting its arrival to her doorstop, snapping a picture of that and sending it in. “It is possible, but you have to jump through a bunch of hoops that would literally drive a sane person insane,” Ashley commented as we compared her options.
Facebook has 2.41 Billion users and prides itself on being a big connector, on making the world smaller and more accessible. After the Cambridge Analytica debacle, Mark Zuckerberg went on his apology tour, and they’ve revamped their policies, including pulling in some heavy hitters who came from the Department of Justice and the State Department. After all of this, when selecting “gender transition” as the reason for a name change, the process isn’t reflective of the fact that an official legal name change is typically one of the last things a person completes when transitioning. The Guardian reported four years ago on this issue. Facebook initially created these rules with the aim of reducing fake profiles folks were using to be trolls. If you saw someone engaging in bullying and it was clear they were using a pseudonym, you now had the chance to report them for using a fake name. As per usual though, impact is more important than intent. This policy is regularly blocking trans folks from changing to gender affirming names.
This week a friend of mine who moderates an online group that fundraises for black women and femmes in Pittsburgh posted a meme on her personal page of a woman sipping wine. The text said, “Someone said not to dress up as a serial killer on Halloween because it’s appropriating white culture.” I cackled loudly, which was mildly embarrassing since I was out in public. The moderators at Facebook didn’t find this as funny as I did: she was banned for 24 hours, and when she tried to appeal it, they smacked on another seven days.
This morning, another friend of mine, a badass union organizer, texted me a screenshot. She was banned on Facebook for three days because she used “hate speech.” The hate speech in question? “Why are cishet men so trash? Get a damn personality.” I almost spit out my coffee. I was already in the middle of typing about the platform’s backwards community standards and salty that white cisgender straight men are treated as a more protected class than actual marginalized groups.
I did some research on this censorship issue, and I found a host of creepy conservative alt-right blogs complaining that Facebook is actually blocking their voices and censoring them. Vanity Fair did a deep dive on Facebook’s quest to address its community standards in an equitable way.
“In the abstract, almost everyone on Bickert’s team favored a hate-speech policy that took into account power imbalances between different groups. But for a user base of more than two billion people, such changes proved impossible to scale. On some level, there are no ‘fixes’ to Facebook’s problems. There are only trade-offs. Like an actual government, it seemed, the best Facebook could hope for was a bunch of half-decent compromises.” After all, no matter what Facebook did, it would be angering a lot of folks on both sides of the political spectrum, right?
The notion that Facebook has their hands tied over this is simply a false equivalence. First, people that wish to eradicate whole groups of people are not the flip side to people speaking out about their oppression. Next, the fact that these censoring incidents are so prevalent still, after years of calls for change, shows that Facebook is either not aware of the power dynamics they claim to be cognizant of, or they just don’t care. To treat these groups as if they are on equal footing (men = women, white folks = black folks), from a “color blind” or neutral stance, is to automatically favor those who already have more power, in this case, men and white people.
Reverse racism isn’t a thing just like reverse sexism isn’t a thing. You can’t punch down to men if you’re a woman. In a white supremacist patriarchy, men are the ones with institutional power. Although, if I’m going to post about this more on Facebook, I’ll be typing m*n instead of men. I don’t want to be banned, too!