Facebook flags aboriginal names as not 'authentic'

Facebook requires its users to use a profile name that’s the same as the name they use in real life. But some indigenous people say Facebook is rejecting their real names because they don’t conform to their standards.
Dana Lone Hill was told that it appeared the name she shares with her mother "may not be your authentic name," in this error message on Facebook. (Dana Lone Hill)

Facebook requires its users to use a profile name that’s the same as the name they use in real life, but some indigenous people say the social network is rejecting their real names because they don’t conform to its standards.

Earlier this month, Dana Lone Hill, a member of the Lakota people living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, tried to log in to her Facebook account. She was met with an error message asking her to change her name.

The message read: “It looks like the name on your Facebook account may not be your authentic name.” 

Lone Hill's name is one she shares with her mother. Facebook required her to send in three pieces of identification to prove that her real name is real. Eventually, the social network reactivated her account. 

Lone Hill wrote about her experience on the Last Real Indians blog, and she found she wasn’t the only aboriginal person to who had run afoul of Facebook’s “real name” policy. 

In October, a number of people — with names like Lance Browneyes and Shane Creepingbear — had had their accounts suspended because of their names. 

And so did Kimberly TallBear, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. 

"I just tried to log in one day and they said you can’t log in and your account has been suspended," she said. "It just kind of came out of the blue. I’d been on Facebook since 2009."

When TallBear emailed Facebook, they asked her to send in I.D. to confirm her name and the spelling, but they weren't satisfied with that, either. 

"They didn’t like the unusual capitalization," said TallBear, whose name appears as one word with a capital B on government issued identification. 

"I grew up in South Dakota. I’m used to names like this. But apparently most Americans aren’t, and even when faced with identification that shows that that’s our legal name, still can’t wrap their minds around it," she said. 

"Unusual capitalization" is one of the no-nos listed on Facebook’s page on what names are allowed on the social network, along with symbols, numbers, repeating characters and punctuation. Of course, a capital letter in the middle of a name isn’t so unusual if your name happens to be Scottish. 

This isn’t the first time the social network has stirred up controversy with their standards around so-called “real” names.

Last fall, Facebook issued an apology to drag queens, transgender people and members of the LGBT community. Facebook had suspended the accounts of performers in San Francisco for use of their stage names. 

The company’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, wrote that Facebook’s “policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life.” 

So, for drag queen Lil Miss Hot Mess, that real-life authentic name is "Lil Miss Hot Mess." 

But even after that apology and clarification, aboriginal users continued to have their profiles locked.

Professor TallBear had her account reactivated and started writing about her experience. She found that the issue isn’t new.

"I have friends all over Indian country, in the United States and Canada," she said. "There have been people in Pine Ridge and other places who had had their Facebook accounts suspended over the last several years."

TallBear says there are specific reasons that Facebook would flag aboriginal names as suspect. One of them, she says, is that the conversation about race in America generally doesn't include indigenous people

"There’s this national narrative in the United States that we’re all dead and gone," said TallBear.

And she says Facebook’s reaction is part of a larger issue about aboriginal identity. 

"Eliminating our Facebook accounts because you can’t wrap your mind around the fact that TallBear or Creepingbear or Lone Hill or any of these other names are real names, legal names, it’s related to the disappearance of Native Americans through the support of the Redskins and other kinds of mascots," she said.  

"People get away with that kind of behaviour because there is this explicit or subconscious idea that Native Americans are no longer part of the American public," said TallBear. 

TallBear isn’t accusing Facebook of specifically targeting aboriginals, though. 

"It speaks to a lack of diversity at Facebook themselves. They’ve done this to many, many native people," she said. "I realize that this isn’t an intentional disenfranchisement, but it speaks to a broader problem of what is considered normal." 

And what’s considered "normal," says TallBear, is names that sound European.