Social Stalkers

05.20.15 9:25 AM ET

How Facebook Exposes Domestic Violence Survivors

Lily hid from her ex for more than 20 years, but he found her because Facebook forces even women who need anonymity to use their real names.

“You’ve become eccentric.”

In February, Lily, 47, opened Facebook and found this message under the “Other” tab in her inbox. The message could might have come across as an awkward attempt to reconnect if it were from an old friend. It wasn’t. It was sent by the man who she says beat her, broke her ribs, and repeatedly raped her two decades ago.

“My blood ran cold, I was sweating, and [having] heart palpitations opening the message,” Lily told The Daily Beast. “It made my skin crawl.”

But Lily’s ex might never have been able to find her profile in the first place if Facebook hadn’t asked her to display her “authentic name” in order to reopen her account, which had been suspended in December of last year over her use of a pseudonym.

Of the major social networking services, Facebook alone requires users to use an “authentic name” as listed on an “acceptable” form of identification such as a driver’s license, a passport, or a bill. LinkedIn’s User Agreement asks for a “real name” but does not specify any required documentation. Twitter, Instagram, and—as of 2014—Google Plus all allow pseudonyms.

Those who run afoul of Facebook’s “real-name policy” could have their accounts suspended and be required to submit photocopies of their identification and other documents to regain access. In practice, however, the policy seems to be enforced selectively, primarily affecting users whose names might not appear “authentic” to an algorithm—some Native Americans fit this description—or users like Lily who change their names too many times.

Many survivors of domestic violence note that, because of the cultural ubiquitousness of the service, Facebook is their primary mode of maintaining contact with friends and family. When 71 percent of online adults use Facebook, being suspended can be a form of social exile.

In an email to The Daily Beast, for instance, one woman says that she has remained on Facebook despite two years of continuous stalking by an ex and his friends: “Not being on Facebook would mean I’d simply never hear from a large portion of the people in my life.”

Some survivors are drawn to Facebook out of familial obligation. Another woman told The Daily Beast that she reluctantly joined Facebook to watch over her teenage children’s activity.

“I couldn’t tell them at that point that the main reason we all had to stay offline was because their biological father was still looking for every one of us and had threatened to kill us,” she said. “It’s a fine line to walk when you want to protect your children but know deep down that they’re going to [go online], even behind your back if necessary.”

Late last year, Facebook came under fire for enforcing its real-name policy on drag performers and other members of the LGBT community, but the requirement remains in place and people like Lily are perhaps most endangered by its enforcement. Survivors of domestic violence who have their Facebook accounts suspended face a perilous choice between their safety and their social life.

That’s one of the reasons why the drag performers who put pressure on Facebook’s real-name policy last year are protesting again in the form of an online petition, the #MyNameIs social media campaign, and an in-person demonstration at Facebook’s headquarters on June 1. Facebook CPO Chris Cox issued a public apology to the LGBT community last October after the company’s public spat with drag troupe and charity organization Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence but organizers of the protest say it wasn’t enough.

“Facebook’s apology was an empty one,” drag performer and #MyNameIs organizer Lil Miss Hot Mess told The Daily Beast. “Although they’ve made some symbolic changes in policy language and minor tweaks to the enforcement process, the larger issues remain unresolved.”

Lil Miss Hot Mess privately shared several emails with The Daily Beast—redacting names and other sensitive information—that she has received from users, primarily women, who are still afraid to use their “authentic” names on Facebook because of an abusive ex or a stalker. Some report that their accounts have been suspended for using the pseudonyms that allow them to feel safe online.

Based on Lily’s and other reported suspensions, too, it’s clear that the underlying requirement behind the real-name policy is essentially unchanged despite the October apology.

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In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Over the last several months, we’ve made some significant improvements in the implementation of this standard, including enhancing the overall experience, expanding the options available for verifying an authentic name, and allowing people continued access to their profiles while they work to verify their name.”

But the name verification process is still in place and there is no indication that Facebook is rethinking the core of the policy.

Facebook also continues to allow users to report a profile for “using a fake name,” a feature that, according to Cox, has allowed one individual to singlehandedly report “several hundred” users, many of them drag performers. The continued existence of this feature means that survivors of domestic abuse and stalking could potentially have their profiles reported maliciously as well.

On the Facebook Help Center, however, the company maintains that the real-name policy “helps keep our community safe.” The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), which has served on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board since 2010, echoes this sentiment. In a statement to The Daily Beast, the NNEDV said: “For some survivors, using a fake identity may be one option to maintain their privacy but still engage in social media. However, allowing fake names or anonymity also creates opportunities for abusers to harass and stalk victims and makes it more difficult to hold abusers accountable.”

Cox has further claimed in his apology that “99 percent” of fake name reports catch “bad actors” who do “bad things”—including “domestic abuse”—by “hiding behind behind fake names.” Based on these statements, Facebook seems to perceive the real-name policy as a utilitarian solution that does the most good for the most people, whatever its effects on a vulnerable few.

Privacy expert and app developer Elissa Shevinsky has a degree of sympathy for Facebook’s approach. “I can understand why this is difficult,” she told The Daily Beast. “Real names create a certain kind of community and prevent the most common types of harassment and abuse.”

But for survivors like Lily, a pseudonym isn’t a cloak for bullying behavior, it’s a shield. Before receiving that message from her ex, Lily had been out of touch with him for 18 years, seven of which she spent on Facebook under pseudonyms like her roller derby name. After she reopened her account under her legal name, it only took him two weeks to contact her.

Lily’s experience also shows that the effects of Facebook’s real-name policy are compounded by the website’s notoriously convoluted privacy settings. Facebook has even posted a guide (PDF) it developed with the NNEDV to help survivors navigate all the settings that might leave them open to unwanted contact.

But even after you follow this or one of the many other detailed guides to “locking down” your account, some information that you share with Facebook will always be public, including your name and your profile picture. And some suspect that keeping certain user information public and accurate may be less about maintaining a safe community than it is about collecting valuable data.

As Reed Albergotti wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year, Facebook earns billions in annual advertising revenue based primarily on “its ability to gather detailed, accurate information about users.”

Pseudonym expert aestetix—who co-founded the NymRights group after being suspended twice from Google Plus in 2011—also believes that Facebook may be financially motivated to preserve the policy.

“They have made claims about how the names policy prevents abuse, but have presented no actual evidence,” he told The Daily Beast. “The only two actual plausible explanations I have found are 1) They have had the policy for years and don’t want to put the energy into revamping it, or 2) They want to be able to match names to other data sets so they can sell their data to brokers.”

Either way, many survivors of domestic abuse and stalking will continue to avoid Facebook altogether until the real-name policy is changed or privacy settings are enhanced. One woman in her twenties told The Daily Beast that she quit using Facebook in 2007 after repeated friend requests from an abusive father.

“It’s frustrating how you can be tagged and how your comments can be public if a friend has lesser privacy settings,” she said. “I had a friend tag me once where we ate—I was terrified.”

Another woman told The Daily Beast that she can’t have a Facebook account “because [my ex-husband] knows who many of my friends are” and could find her through their profiles.

“It wouldn’t be difficult for him to do,” she added.

Their experiences are not exceptional. The Pew Research Center found that over a quarter of young women in the U.S. have been stalked online. And in this online environment, Facebook’s real-name policy is dangerous for the very users Facebook claims it protects.

When Facebook first contacted Lily to ask her to prove the authenticity of her name, she pleaded with them to reconsider but eventually convinced herself that it might be safe to abandon her pseudonym after they refused.

“I figured maybe I was overreacting and should lay ghosts to rest some 18 years after the last time [he] found me,” she said.

But Lily didn’t get to lay those ghosts to rest—a sign that it may be time for Facebook to finally put its real-name policy to bed.