Social Media Futures: Anonymity, abuse and identity online

TL;DR

  • Abuse, hate speech and racism are a blight on our online world, but banning anonymity may do little to eliminate them while undermining the positive side of the internet (and not just the protection and privacy afforded to vulnerable people).
  • Social platforms could provide better safety tools based on a secure, user-centric digital identity, where users share distinct ‘attributes’, like ‘real person’ or ‘over 13’, without revealing identifying info
  • Users could potentially block out abusive, harmful content from fake/‘burner’ accounts that aren’t verified, creating an environment that disincentivises abusive behaviour
The internet enables people to join new communities and explore the creativity of the internet — without those identities overlapping or contradicting each other.

Online anonymity: encouraging harmful content or integral to the internet’s benefits?

The standard defence of online anonymity is familiar: it protects people exposing repression, corruption and hate, and allows stigmatised and abused communities to find safety and support when revealing their real-world identity could expose them to harm. These are all good reasons to preserve anonymity, but there is also a lighter, more cultural case. Anonymity enables people to join new communities and explore the full creativity, levity and absurdity of today’s internet without those identities overlapping or contradicting each other. As writer AARON Z. LEWIS says, “from alt Twitter accounts to finstas to private Snap stories, Very Online people are incubating new models of identity and selfhood”. Crucially, this benefit applies as much to users on Flickr or the comment sections of online newspapers, as it does on Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat.

How could an upgraded approach to ID embed safety into social media without undermining privacy?

Before the internet, ‘identity’ meant driving licences, passports or ID cards: physical documents with lots of sensitive personal information on them collected in one place. When you bought alcohol, you’d not only reveal your full date of birth (instead of just proving you were over 18) but also your home address or even your passport number. Applying this model of identity to the internet would be a mistake. It would undermine important rights while also forcing unnecessary and intrusive sharing of personal data.

Figure 1: Proposed tiers of verification for social media accounts

Illustration for several tiers of social media account verification: unknown users, pseudonymous accounts verified with a ‘real person’ credential, full verification of real names, and notable accounts e.g. celebrities

A different way of tackling online abuse

The internet is a crucible for emerging cultures and banning anonymity on social media would undermine the great benefits it brings. But services’ designs nevertheless expose people to unnecessary risk. Relying solely on prosecution of abuse, given all the nuances of speech, is hard at internet scale (for both police and social media platforms) and by this point the damage has already been done. The guiding principle should therefore be to explore how optionality provided by new online tools could tackle abuse — without sacrificing privacy or anonymity for anyone that wants it.

Table 1: Comparison of different models of identity verification on social media, by impact on elements of online abuse

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