Calls to end social media anonymity give platforms more power without actually solving the problem, experts say

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The online abuse the England football team suffered after the Euro 2020 final prompted people to take drastic action to prevent this from happening again: giving social media companies their legal identification.

Commentators like Piers Morgan, industry professionals and average users have argued for this in the belief that while people were forced to take public responsibility for what they wrote online, our experiences would be better.

Sociologists and digital rights activists have opposed this, however, for a number of reasons: many platforms already enforce real name policies, the risks of data breaches by malicious actors are too great, and the problem of racism. is rooted in society but encouraged by social media algorithms.

“This emphasis on ‘real name policies’ obscures the reality that racism is not a by-product of some people’s access to anonymity online. In fact, many people post racist and abusive material on the internet from accounts that feature their names and pictures of them, so it is clear that this problem is much larger and more complex than some conversations on the Internet suggest. anonymity online, ”Dr Francesca Sobande, a Cardiff University professor specializing in digital culture and black identity, said The independent.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has used a “real name” policy since 2015. Initially, it required users to hand over government IDs, but had to adapt its rules after LGBTQ and Native American activists stated that using their real name puts them at risk. Facebook now says that users can verify their identity with “many forms of non-legal identification,” such as bills or a library card.

“It is essential to recognize that some people seek to participate in digital spaces anonymously, as they are at great risk as survivors of violence and abuse, and as people who face the dangers of racism. , sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of oppression, ”adds Dr Sobande. “This raises the bigger question: why do people feel emboldened to perpetuate such abuses? “

For Katherine Cross, a sociologist and doctoral student at the University of Washington, it is not anonymity on social networks but rather deindividualization and dissociation that helps promote online abuse.

An oft-repeated mantra, even if questioned, is that social media is not real life. On Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, we all perform some type of behavior based on the algorithmic demands of this platform – and that performance creates distance and dissociation between what is said online and offline.

“We can see ourselves as lost in a crowd when we harass someone online, so the immediate visibility of our legal identity is of no consequence. Or we can view our actions as harmless; it’s just words, just expression, just a joke, et cetera. We also may not see the humanity of our interlocutor, seeing them as mere pixels on a screen, the avatar of everything we despise or some distant celebrity, ”said Cross. The independent.

“Adding bigotry to the mix makes things even more toxic and outright abuse more inevitable. English footballers are the target of harassment countryside; individual participants feel emboldened because of the online crowd they are surrounded by, less because of their anonymity.

But the internet is not anonymous, anyway; Facebook, for example, collects a large amount of data about you from its app, as well as Instagram and WhatsApp. It already gathers enough information to discover the identity of anyone who posts racist messages – and much more.

The company knows what interests you; he knows your position; it knows all the messages you have shared, the messages you typed and then deleted, and many other facts hidden behind its algorithm. Twitter, too, can identify users with Accuracy close to 100% just from their metadata, or data that describes and informs about other data, such as the geolocation of a tweet.

Not to mention the amount of personal information that can be revealed by the Internet infrastructure itself, even from something as small as an email or an IP address – and adding more data into the mix only increases the severity of privacy breaches, like the one that exposed the personal information of 530 million Facebook users, and of which Facebook refused to inform users.

Advocates of online identification, however, point to the ability of users to hide themselves digitally. “While social media platforms – and the law enforcement agencies they increasingly work with – will have access to users’ IP addresses, the widespread availability of VPN software that masks a user’s IP address. computer means it’s far from a silver bullet, ”said Yuelin Li, vice president of strategy at Onfido, an identity verification and security company.

“Depending on how social media platforms want to embrace identity verification, or even maintain some level of anonymity… [there could be] different levels of accounts, from full anonymity to the real person, to the real person verified. Each user can then decide the level of access they want to the platform using these classifications. “

Allan Dunlavy, a privacy lawyer and partner at Schillings, is also an advocate for the ruling. “A requirement that social media companies obtain and hold true proof of identity for their users would allow police to hold individuals responsible for criminal acts online,” he said.

“In autocratic states we have seen a number of instances where anonymous speech has played a role in advancing democracy movements and it is an important function. There is, however, no general right to anonymous freedom of expression and our courts are more than capable of reviewing requests for user identification data and ensuring that such requests are appropriate and serve a purpose. legitimate ”.

But for critics, the risks far outweigh the rewards. “When people say to me: ‘It’s okay, I have nothing to hide’, my response is: ‘give me your phone, PIN code, password to [your] e-mail and a copy of your passport and let me do whatever I want, ”says Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a writer and presenter who trained as a mechanical engineer and was subjected to torrents of abuse on social media.

“If you don’t feel comfortable doing it, why do you feel comfortable handing everything over to a private company that hasn’t earned our trust … and what happens when someone who wants to destroy your life – or who is just a bad faith actor – gets a hold of all your information? It only takes one bad apple to really ruin everything.

In the event that social media companies are unable to moderate themselves effectively, which critics have often argued, the government will implement legislation – such as the Online Harms Bill – to encourage them more or risk huge fines. Some companies have already tried to make changes to encourage better behavior on their platforms.

“I think something that is less controversial [than real name policies] is that social media companies should focus more on promoting the quality of speech on their platforms, rather than just quantity. I love that Twitter encourages people to read a post before they tweet it, and that Instagram has tried algorithms that encourage people to think twice before sending bullying messages, ”said David Stillwell, computer social science lecturer at the University of Cambridge. The independent.

Even though they promote healthier conversations with new features, however, other more hidden parts of social media could encourage racism and other problematic content. The algorithms themselves, many people pointed out, can also be used to promote extremism – unless the social media company itself interferes to decrease it. It has been alleged that Facebook knew its platform encouraged polarizing content, but proposals to change it would be “anti-growth,” so research was put on hold.

Whether this legislation would be able to push social media companies to tackle this problem properly remains to be seen, but with criticism of how the UK and US governments are dealing with racism, experts have no hope.

“It seems almost impossible to imagine an effective legislative solution emerging from Westminster or Washington right now, certainly not one that significantly addresses racism,” Cross said.

“Whatever else we may say about politicians, it is quite clear that governments on both sides of the Atlantic are reluctant to confront racism and other forms of prejudice throughout society. , especially with so many of their members having built their careers on this prejudice… which should be borne in mind given the intimate relationship between government and big business in the United States and the United Kingdom ”.


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