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October 07, 2014

Social Media Putting LGBT Communities at Risk: Facebook

Facebook often provides a medium for LGBT individuals to express their sexual orientation or gender identity free from the judgment and harassment they would otherwise experience in the non-digital world. Recently, however, the same social media giant has come under scrutiny for a user profile policy that puts the already vulnerable community at risk.

The policy, designed to encourage online accountability and combat harassment and fraud, required users to use their legal names when creating their profile. For some members of the LGBT community and other social groups, using their legal name could open them up to persecution and discrimination from coworkers, family members, and more.  

Beyond American borders Facebook's commitment to privacy falls under further scrutiny. In the Middle East, despite the significant role social media played in the Arab Spring, various platforms are now being used not to mobilize communities, but to persecute them. State security forces have begun monitoring user profiles and postings in the hopes of identifying LGBT individuals.  Most recently, an Iranian man was targeted by the country's cyberpolice for attempting to rendezvous with other men through his Facebook profile. It is a gross violation of human rights by Iranian cyber security forces, and an assault on individual privacy. 

The worries of the LGBT community have not fallen on deaf ears. Recently, senior officials at Facebook met with drag queens and public officials in San Francisco to discuss the company's real-name policy and the repercussions that follow in the real world. Seeming to relent, Facebook released a statement indicating their desire to honor the spirit of the policy by henceforth honoring an individual's "authentic name" if not their legal one.  The policy shift undoubtedly is a step in the right direction in terms of privacy protections for the LGBT community; it is not, however, comprehensive.  

This shift will rightly protect the drag queens who raised the issue with Facebook and the various transgender groups that held a celebration of the reinterpreted policy  in San Francisco. For others who wish to embrace their sexual orientation or gender identity on the site while maintaining their legal name, more needs to be done. For those living in countries where homosexuality is illegal, it can't be done soon enough.