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Facebook Doesn’t Think Native-American Names Are Real

Native American users report their accounts were suspended in violation of the “real names” policy.

Photo by Flickr user zeevveez.

Late last year, Facebook was subject to a maelstorm of criticism after it cracked down on performers and drag queens who were using psuedonyms on their accounts instead of their given or legal names. Facebook’s product chief Christopher Cox was eventually forced to issue an apology, writing that, “The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life.”

If it appeared as though Facebook was softening on its “real names” policy, that might not be the case with respect to Native Americans. When Dana Lone Hill, a Lakota Native, tried to log into her Facebook account recently, she recieved a notification message blocking her from the attempt. “Please Change Your Name,” it said, “It looks like the name on your Facebook account may not be your authentic name. We ask everyone to use the authentic name they go by in real life so friends know who they’re connecting with.”

Lone Hill uses her father’s name, which is also the name on her birth certificate, but prior to this she had been using her mother’s maiden name, Lone Elk. Her account is also listed with her individual Lakota name, Oyate Wachinyanpi. In order to regain access to her account, she sent the social media company three forms of identification. A response message told her to be “patient” while they authenticate her identity. On Last Real Indians, Lone Hill wrote about the tedious process:

“I still don’t have my old account back, am still waiting for it because I have so much on there from having the same account for 8 years, I hope they give it back. And I wonder why this hasn’t hit the hippies and wannabes yet who can give themselves such names like Little White Bird and yet Facebook doesn’t blink an eye at those cheesy names. Why do we have to prove who we are on the internet where anybody can be whoever they want. We already have to prove who we are in real life with our blood quantum. No other race in mankind has to prove their blood percentage but Native Americans, just like dogs in the AKC. Katy Perry’s Left Shark from her Superbowl halftime show has a facebook page and we have to prove who we are?’

Last Columbus Day, Shane Creepingbear, of the Kiowa tribe, and his wife Jaqui Creepingbear were targeted by the same “real names” policy, and it wasn’t the first time. Shane Creepingbear had already gone through the autentication process, providing the social network with a copy of his driver’s license. In 2009, a Native American woman whose given name is Parmelee Kills The Enemy also had her account suspended.

These incidents expose the real weaknesses of Facebook’s “real names” policy. Whether it’s flawed human judgement or an algorithm or a malicious user flagging someone else’s account, there’s no way to arbitrate people’s identities. The existence of these mechanisms assumes a certain homogenity to the world: there are only “real names” and “fake names” and nothing outside that binary is allowed to exist. What is “real” to an algorithm that is only programmed to understand English names? Who gets to decide what’s real and what’s not real, especially on a social media site mainly used as a platform for the performance of public identities?

Facebook’s notion of an “authentic” identity is faulty to begin with, and fails to take into account the multi-dimensional ways humans perform identities in different parts of their life, in different environments, and in public or in private. For persecuted people—government dissenters or transgender people, among many other groups—using aliases is a often a matter of life and death.

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