I Shouldn’t Have To Risk My Safety In Order To Have My Voice Heard
Sites that require my photo and legal name in order to publish there just put me in danger
Stalking, harassment, doxxing, threats — these are all well-known and well-documented things that many women face when using their voice on the internet. There are also many notable cases where men have faced these same kinds of issues. Because I know that to be the case, I made the choice right from the beginning to write under a professional name.
Pen names have been standard fare for writers for hundreds of years, and that practice is even more relevant now when an unlimited number of readers has access to your media presence for an unlimited amount of time. I have friends and acquaintances who have been stalked and harassed for what they have written. I even know a couple who have received death threats.
Why is it then that certain websites want to require everyone to use a real photograph and a “legal” name? What does that actually provide them, other than data that they can sell to advertisers? They profess that it helps keep people more accountable for what they write, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. And is what they assert it provides an appropriate balance for what it asks of the people that they are potentially putting in danger?
Facebook has long maintained a belief that they are an “identity network” despite allowing Russian troll farms to post fake news which is believed to have influenced the 2016 election. How did their real names policy work in that instance? Oh right, it didn’t.
In 2011 Facebook deactivated the account of the controversial author, Salmon Rushdie because his passport lists his first name as Ahmed, a name that the writer has never used. Because Rushdie is a well-known person, he was eventually able to get his profile reinstated under the name that he prefers and writes under. On the other hand, I have a friend whose legal first name is Free who was unable to use that for his Facebook profile because it was determined that it wasn’t his actual name. He had to sign up using his middle name instead.
In other words, these policies are useless and in many cases, are actually harmful. They don’t prevent people from using shadow identities for nefarious purposes and they do put people who have legitimate reasons to shield their identity at risk.
Supporters of democratic protests in the Middle East and elsewhere have criticized Facebook and other social networks like Google+ for their real-name policies, saying they prevent people from organizing against authoritarian governments that could use a network like Facebook to crack down.
If they could use pseudonyms, they would be safer, some say.
“There are myriad reasons why individuals may wish to use a name other than the one they were born with,” Jillian York wrote on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s blog in July. “They may be concerned about threats to their lives or livelihoods, or they may risk political or economic retribution. They may wish to prevent discrimination or they may use a name that’s easier to pronounce or spell in a given culture.” CNN.com
Some websites also require that you use a photograph for your profile icon, rather than some other type of picture. In a world where you can search for an image and find matches in other places, this is also a safety problem. For most of my time on Medium, I used a picture of a statue of Aphrodite with her elbow crooked. I only switched to my memoji as a concession to another website, who then went on to tell me that they actually required a photo. Of course, I had the option not to have a profile there, but I shouldn’t have to make that choice.
First off, there’s no way for them to verify that I’m posting a picture of myself. I could just as easily appropriate one from somewhere else and they’d never know the difference. Secondly, Medium has many users who shield themselves behind pseudonyms and non-identifying images and they still have a much better track-record of civility than many other places on the internet. Medium’s rules around harassment, spam, and inappropriate behavior are sufficient in nearly all cases.
So, now there are a couple places out there in the world that feature an image of me in a wig, taken through a filter. Does that really prompt me to greater integrity or self-responsibility? No, not in the least. In fact, the more of my private self that you try to force me to reveal, the less honest I feel that I can be in my work.
I got an email this morning thanking me for the very open and direct way that I speak about my life, including my sex life. I get messages like this on a regular basis, but I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that if I thought that it could easily be traced back to my everyday world and that men who found that intriguing might show up at my door.
My honesty and willingness to share things that aren't often spoken about freely is helpful to other people. I enjoy getting to offer something that isn’t widely available and to destigmatize things like polyamory by talking about them. But it’s not just the privacy aspect that is jeopardized when I’m required to provide more personal information than I’m comfortable with. It’s also compromising my safety.
A few months back a “fan” contacted me and wanted to be my friend. I’ve met a lot of nice people online and some of them have become my friends. Although I didn’t anticipate that that’s what was going to happen with this guy, I tried to be cordial. But pretty soon he was pestering me for my legal name and making it clear that because my writing had aroused him, that I owed him something. In essence, writing about polyamory made me a tease. He insinuated that he’d like to find me. I blocked him, but it was still upsetting.
I’ve had similar situations in the past, although none quite as disconcerting and creepy as that one. I’ve heard stories of men showing up at women’s doors, following them, or otherwise making their lives miserable because they’ve become obsessed with someone they came across online. The whole thing was really unsettling, but at least I knew that it would be quite difficult for him to figure out who I was and where I lived because of the precautions that I’ve taken. At least I got a good story out of it.
Besides writing about things of a personal nature, I also write about social problems. Those kinds of stories also draw unpleasant attention, and although I’ve never been directly threatened due to what I’ve written, I have several friends who write about similar topics who have been. The purpose of these threats is to scare the person into keeping quiet in the future.
And as I’ve said, even if you are pretty sure the threatener can’t find you, it is still a disquieting experience. It does make you ask yourself whether or not it’s worth it to keep speaking up if that is the response, even if only a small fraction of the time. It does often have the intended effect of muting people’s voices.
Few threats on the internet are made to signal an actual attack. Rather, they typically intend to inflict emotional harm and force unwanted people and opinions out of a certain space. Rewire
I’m not intending to stop writing about what I want to write about anytime soon, but I am increasingly unhappy with platforms that want to compromise my safety and privacy in order to do so. I can, of course, choose not to publish there, but in at least one instance, they reached out to me and asked to publish something of mine. Fortunately, in that instance, once I explained the reasons that I write using a professional name they agreed to allow that — but it was an exception that was being made for me, rather than a change in their policy.
If you don’t want your website to turn into Twitter, then institute rules and guidelines, that discourage that kind of behavior, the way that Medium does. I’ve reported several people over the years and always felt that I was listened to and my concerns were taken seriously. Most of those people I reported ended up leaving the platform of their own accord rather than have to edit their comments to adhere to Medium standards.
Banning avatars and pseudonyms isn’t what keeps people behaving well. Guidelines that are reinforced and a process for reporting those who don’t adhere to them does. I shouldn’t have to open my private life up to sharks as the price for speaking up about what’s important and meaningful to me and neither should anyone else.