Calls for the banning of anonymous social media accounts are erroneous

The problems with social media identity verification don't change the fact that many social media users have been harmed.

Priti Patel, the UK Home Secretary, did not rule out banning anonymous social media accounts during a recent interview on Sky News. The interview took place just days after Sir David Amess MP was murdered, prompting proposals for a "David's Law" prohibiting anonymous social media profiles. Anyone who cares about civil liberties should be concerned about such a proposition. Although unsavory and illegal actors use anonymous social media profiles, authorities should not overlook the significance of anonymous discourse.

Anonymous social media profiles have long been a source of controversy. Following England's loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, numerous British commentators called for an end to anonymous social media accounts, citing the avalanche of online racist abuse thrown at black England soccer players. According to YouGov polling, 78 percent of respondents in the UK support making identity disclosure a requirement before registering a social network account. 37 percent of the 78 percent feel that social media users should be required to divulge their identities in their profiles.

While such a requirement may sound appealing to many at first glance it would result in a significant reduction in the spread of valuable speech and put the privacy of millions of social media users at risk.

Amid well‐​publicised online abuse directed at lawmakers, racial minorities, and others it is tempting to view anonymity as the refuge of bigots, criminals, and harassers. And while it is appropriate for news outlets to highlight instances of notable online abuse, we should not forget that anonymity is valuable to a wide range of those speaking online.

Speakers who seek anonymity or pseudonymity (writing under an assumed name) do so for a variety of reasons. For some, anonymity provides a shield from social sanction that may result from their speech. Those from strict religious families may want to take steps to conceal their identity when discussing religion in online forums. Similarly, young people seeking new political ideas may want to avoid having their hyper‐​partisan parents finding out about their political views. Workers who want to draw attention to poor working conditions may choose to conceal their identity in an attempt to avoid being fired. Under a policy mandating that such speakers display their identity, we should expect such speech to diminish and in some cases disappear altogether.

If an identity verification policy is enacted, even people who are not at risk of being disowned or dismissed for their online expression may choose to remain silent. Anonymous and pseudonymous accounts allow social media users to explore difficult and complex themes like politics, race, sexuality, religion, and others without fear of their remarks or inquiries being used against them later. If their identities were tied to an account, many speakers would be less candid in online conversations.

Supporters of identity verification might argue that a policy requiring social media users verify their identity with social media companies but allowing them to post under a pseudonym would allow for such speakers to continue posting without fear of their identities being revealed. This is misguided.

The very fact that a private company is hoarding identity information associated with millions of people will deter many social media users from using their preferred platform. Those who use social media to conduct whistleblowing or highlight government fraud and abuse will flee platforms if their identity is one government request or criminal hack away from being revealed to law enforcement, intelligence agencies, or the public. Such breaches are not hypothetical, as hacks of private companies such as Twitch and government agencies such as OPM demonstrate. Members of religious and political minorities, sex workers, and many others often on the receiving end of surveillance and social stigma would be justified in abandoning social media or seeking encrypted alternatives.

At least one supporter of social media identity verification claims that “People could still use pseudonyms to whistleblow, report abuse etc.” Perhaps, but the question lawmakers should ask is, “How many whistleblowers will there be if identity verification is required in the first place?”

While the identity verification proposal has yet to be presented in a bill we should expect that any proposal will have to define covered firms. “Social media” is a term that we are all used to, and when we hear it firms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter inevitably come to mind. However, “social media” is difficult to define. Lawmakers’ attempts to regulate social media will have to define what firms are covered by the identity verification mandate. This is not an easy task.

We intuitively think of social media as digital platforms where users can post and reply to comments, organize events, share photos, etc. Yet such capabilities are hardly confined to “Big Tech” household name firms. On Wikipedia, users can post comments, contribute to debates, and share content using pseudonymous accounts. Chess​.com allows users to chat with one another, post in forums, and write blog posts. Yelp!, Nextdoor, Rotten Tomatoes, and many, many other websites also have features most people attribute to “social media.” But what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for social media? This is a question lawmakers seeking to impose identity verification on social media firms will have to answer. If they get the answer wrong the unintended consequences would affect much more than Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

The problems with social media identity verification don't change the fact that many social media users have been harmed. Harassment, bullying, and other types of abuse can result in terrible events, and echo chambers that reinforce and deepen conspiracy theories are hardly conducive to civil conversation. It's easy to see why lawmakers all across the world are pushing for action in the face of such dangers. However, measures such as banning anonymous accounts will restrict valuable expression and jeopardize privacy.

Follow us on Google News

Filed under

Recent Search