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RealNamePolice and the real story behind Facebook’s name policy fumble
Six degrees of Hedda Lettuce.
When Facebook issued an apology this week for suspending user accounts that had what it alleged to be fake names, it pinned the whole debacle on one person. This “individual,” Facebook reasoned, sewed confusion into its flawed reporting system—intended to protect against bullying and online abuse. Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox explains that Facebook was caught “off guard” by a lone actor who reported “several hundred” accounts as fake. According to our source, who claims to have spent “hours and hours” systematically reporting Facebook users from the drag community and beyond, thousands of accounts were suspended—and they’ve been at it for weeks.
The sudden account freeze affected everyone from drag queens to other members of the LGBT community who were using the names they go by in their everyday lives rather than legal names for myriad reasons to seemingly totally random accounts. Flagged Facebook users were met with this message, prompting them to upload proof of their legal name in order to reinstate their accounts:
Facebook declined to name the person who had undertaken a campaign to report accounts in violation of the social network’s Terms of Service (ToS), starting with a tight-knit group of San Francisco drag queens and fanning out from there, but in mid-September, one Secret user boasted about reporting drag queens on Facebook.
Meanwhile, on Sept. 19, an account called @RealNamePolice popped up on Twitter with a mission statement to “Report all #MyNameIs violators of Facebook’s Real Name policy.” Below is an image of RealNamePolice’s Tumblr, which remains live.
The account quickly drew the ire of Sister Roma and Sister Unity, the drag identities of two members of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the self-described “leading-edge Order of queer nuns” at the center of Facebook’s real names policy crackdown. A number of Twitter users reported @RealNamePolice, though what part of Twitter’s ToS it violated remains unclear.
.@RealNamePolice the rule is wrong and dangerous. Millions of people need protection, not persecution. Please stop.
— Sister Roma (@SisterRoma) September 20, 2014
On Sept. 22, Twitter suspended @RealNamePolice. We reached out to the company for an explanation of why the account was flagged. According to Twitter: “We do not comment on individual accounts, for privacy and security reasons. Our rules outline content and conduct boundaries on the platform, and we may suspend accounts that violate them.”
That same day, a Twitter account called @RealNamesBack began tweeting. By all accounts, the new user appears (and claims) to be the reincarnation of @RealNamePolice, which remains suspended.
— Real Name Enforcers (@RealNamesBack) September 22, 2014
Here’s their new name; PLEASE REPORT! RealNamesBack They’re also on Tumblr as RealNamePolice (a timeless classic!) pic.twitter.com/kXShkRZrMd
— Sister Unity (@SisterUnity) September 22, 2014
— Real Name Enforcers (@RealNamesBack) September 22, 2014
We reached out to @RealNamesBack, who claims to have reported “upwards of thousands” of Facebook accounts that appeared to violate Facebook’s ToS under the umbrella of the RealNamePolice handle, which spans social networks.
Given the timing and the accounts suspended, they believe that they are in fact the mystery “individual” who threw a wrench into Facebook’s system, noted in Facebook’s explanation of the events. “Considering the hours and hours I spent reporting accounts over the course of the past month, it is likely that I am.” We reached out to Facebook yesterday about why it appeared that LGBT community was disproportionately affected by the sudden enforcement of the real name policy. Facebook denies that the individual mentioned in its apology was targeting the LGBT community specifically. Of course, remarks by both RealNamePolice and the anonymous Secret user suggest otherwise.
“I reported any account which had an obvious fake name. I would go to a user [of the] account I reported and go down their friend list. Hedda Lettuce’s account was particularly useful. I can recall accounts from all over the U.S. in a variety of States. I did not report anyone I personally know as they didn’t violate the ToS.”
Though the first RealNamePolice Twitter account wasn’t created until Sept. 19 (and reborn on Sept. 22—coincidentally the same day that Facebook alternative Ello went viral) the user behind the accounts told us that their work began far earlier, on Sept. 8, just days before Sister Roma’s outcry over Facebook’s policy went nuclear.
“The week of Sept. 8 is when I noticed the policy and began reporting. I recall someone saying that their friend’s account was impacted by the policy so I looked it up. Over the course of a week, I reported hundreds to thousands of accounts… I reported nearly everyone which I [later] saw represented at the first meeting [between Facebook and the drag queens on Sept. 17] as well as hundreds of others.
“Their names violated the Real Name Policy as it stood. The accounts which I reported initially would be removed and new names in their place the next day. Except on the weekends when it appeared no one was working on processing reports. On Monday morning the second week hundreds dropped like flies.”
Around that date, Sept. 15, is when the Secret user claiming responsibility for many suspended Facebook accounts got involved, according to their comments on the Secret thread.
The Secret user explained how they simply used Facebook comment threads and Likes to report hundreds of accounts. Before long, they branched out from the drag community and started reporting other accounts they deemed fake: “Moved on past drag Queens and found ton of pet accounts I’m reporting now. People love their pets way too freaking much.”
Similarly, RealNamePolice—who appears to be unaffiliated with the Secret user—claims to have reported not only Sister Roma and the core Facebook accounts affected by the controversy, but many, many others.
“Simply going through accounts’ friend lists provided more than enough but I also searched out cartoon character and other fictional names,” they explained. “I searched out a list of the most popular cartoon characters and actors as well as Simpsons gag names, i.e. Mike Hunt.”
According to the views expressed on their Twitter and Tumblr, RealNamePolice appears to have an ideological interest in disrupting the accounts of whoever they deem to be a “secular sodomite.” But their greater mission is to report any and all accounts with “fake names,” and drag queens and the broader LGBT community made for an natural starting place. “Their names are simply the easiest to spot… [there are] massive amounts of real name violators… They are the ones with the most obvious fake names and hundreds of friends with fake names.”
To zero in on those accounts, RealNamePolice merely browsed Facebook profiles for potential targets. “The profile photo of a person in drag combined with a non-typical name was a huge indicator. Heklina Heklina. Sister Roma. Hedda Lettuce as well as all the characters on the RuPaul show…”
While it still refuses to change its problematic “real names” policy, Facebook does intend to craft a more thoughtful approach to handling flagged accounts—though, troublingly, the system will still have room for interpretation.
“…We see through this event that there’s lots of room for improvement in the reporting and enforcement mechanisms, tools for understanding who’s real and who’s not, and the customer service for anyone who’s affected,” Facebook’s CPO Cox said. “These have not worked flawlessly and we need to fix that.”
After those “hours and hours” of quietly reporting Facebook users, RealNamePolice took to Twitter and then Tumblr to mobilize anyone who would listen to do the same.
When we asked RealNamePolice if they intended to spread their gospel on Facebook, they responded matter-of-factly.
“No as that name would violate their TOS.”
Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III
Taylor Hatmaker has reported on the tech industry for nearly a decade, covering privacy and government. Most recently, she was the Debug editor of the Daily Dot. Prior to that, she was a staff writer and deputy editor at ReadWrite, a tech and business reporter for Yahoo News, and the senior editor of Tecca. Her editorial interests include censorship, digital activism, LGBTQ issues, and futurist consumer tech.