Abuse, hate speech and targeted harassment across social media platforms is prolific and absolutely horrendous. People of colour, women, LGBTQIA+ people and other minority groups often have a terrible experience on social media platforms, which others simply do not have to deal with on a day to day basis.
This was highlighted once again this weekend, when the England team lost the Euros final to Italy. Three of the players in particular - Rashford, Sancho and Saka - have faced days of racial abuse from anonymous accounts, without much consequence for those delivering the hate speech online. The problem being, of course, you can easily set up a social media profile without proving who you are, allowing you to go and spew vitriol at anyone from the safety of your home.
But the answer to this should absolutely not be requiring ID verification to create a social media profile. There is currently a petition circulating online that will be submitted to the government for response, which has over 600,000 signatures demanding just that. The petition states:
Make it a legal requirement when opening a new social media account, to provide a verified form of ID. Where the account belongs to a person under the age of 18 verify the account with the ID of a parent/guardian, to prevent anonymised harmful activity, providing traceability if an offence occurs.
Set up by celebrity Katie Price in response to her disabled son Harvey receiving horrific online abuse, Price wants the Online Harms Bill to remove anonymity for social media users so that people can be found more easily and criminally charged for their hateful comments.
And it's not hard to see the appeal. For anyone that's come under fire from a pathetic social media profile that hurls spite behind a cartoon profile picture and a handle that does little to identify who they are, the idea of ID verification is very appealing.
However, and I say this with full empathy for those that suffer this abuse daily, that ID verification is a terrible idea, is mostly unworkable and will have negative consequences for huge swathes of people that need protection. Not only that, but it could potentially create a two-tier social media experience that excludes more people from the internet that need protecting.
Anonymity is important sometimes
One of the primary arguments against the use of ID verification for social media is the costs involved in getting government issued ID. Passports, drivers licences and other forms of ID typically cost money and not everyone that is on social media can afford that documentation. This is an important point to make, but it's not the only reason why this is a bad idea.
For instance, social media has consistently been used to organize protests for people living under oppressive regimes. Countries with oppressive governments outside of the UK and the US have consistently faced international scrutiny because of the efforts of people organizing themselves online and sharing information. And whilst the UK and the US may not be classed as ‘oppressive' for most people, there have still been instances where anonymity has been needed online to organize and support causes - including the BLM and #metoo movements. Yes we have a right to protest here, but we also have a right to privacy.
Also it's worth considering people that have faced terrible domestic violence or abusive situations at home. Connecting with people online can be life saving in many instances and often abusers withhold documentation from their victims. Not only this, but many survivors that manage to flee their abusive environments rely on anonymity online to continue to protect themselves. Trans people also use anonymous profiles online, so as to not expose themselves to more violence and hatred - they deserve to have the choice to be public online or not.
Young minority groups - including LGBTQIA+ people - often use anonymous profiles when they're young to connect with others as they spend time figuring out who they are. Limiting this learning experience, by requiring ID verification and using your real name online could force young people going through this process into increasingly isolated positions. Often their parents will be in control of their documentation and monitoring their activity online, which could have serious consequences down the line.
In addition to the above, whistleblowers have often used anonymous profiles to expose corruption and deceit. Do we think that will be the case going forward if those people are required to hand their documentation over to a social media company that could then be cooperating with government agencies? I think not.
Can we trust the system?
I had a lively debate with a young man this morning, who was sharing the petition for ID verification online. I expressed my concerns and his argument was that the above groups in question should be protected by the system regardless of whether or not they are anonymous online or not.
My counter argument was, can we really trust the system to do that? My personal view is that the system already makes it hard enough, or messes up often enough, so that the lives of many of these people are difficult. Sometimes privacy online gives them an opportunity to connect, share and learn. I'm not convinced if those people had to have their IDs verified by a social network that this would continue.
Another argument is that just because your ID is verified by a social media company, doesn't mean you have to use an online name that is yours. It just makes it easier for government agencies and companies to track you down. Again, I'm not sure that's always a good thing. Do we trust these organizations to always make the right call to protect our safety? I'm not sure I do.
Social media companies have a responsibility
Social media platforms have a responsibility to limit our exposure to abuse online. They will tell you that they've invested in content moderators and algorithms to help get to grips with this - but that it's a difficult problem to solve.
I agree, it is difficult. But it's also true that by clamping down on all of that hate online, this will limit the usage on their platforms and limit the number of users that they have. Maybe, just maybe, they are worried about how this will impact their share price?
The likes of Twitter and Facebook have created incredible algorithms that can do everything from identify misinformation, to highlighting when someone is talking about COVID-19, to recognizing my face in the background of a photo and informing me that I may like to be tagged. Have we seen any evidence of them putting similar effort into reducing abuse and giving more power to users to control, report and limit the abuse they receive? I'm not convinced.
It's also worth mentioning that this solution is probably unworkable anyway, given the hundreds of millions of users all over the world using the most popular social networks. If the UK implements ID verification for social media, is that going to solve a global problem? No. It requires the companies in question to invest and take it seriously. Ultimately a positive experience on their platforms for all people will make them more sustainable in the long term.
I know this is an incredibly challenging topic and I know for lots of people suffering abuse every day that this is an appealing solution, but I genuinely believe that it will create more negative (and dystopian) consequences over the long term.