Would Removing Social Media Anonymity Protect Or Threaten Our Rights?
Institutions, Privacy / 3 Feb 2022

Would Removing Social Media Anonymity Protect Or Threaten Our Rights?

By Hannah Shewan Stevens, Freelance Journalist
Credit: Etienne Boulanger / Unsplash

As online abuse and disinformation become more commonplace, the debate over whether anonymity on social media protects people from harm or restricts their rights is heating up. 

Last November, Siobhan Baillie MP tabled a ten-minute rule bill (TMRB) – the Social Media (Identity Verification) Bill – calling for all social media platforms to transform their approach to account verification. 

Suggesting it as an addition to the controversial Online Safety Bill (OSB), Baillie proposed that all social media platforms should be required to offer identity verification processes to all users. Additionally, she said that these platforms should then offer options for users to limit or block interactions with other users who have opted out of identity verification.

A phone screen shows a green shield with a black tick in a white circle. Text reads "protected"

Credit: Privecstasy / Unsplash

I have spoken before about the misery of the dark cyber-streets and alleyways,” she said. “While not all abuse is anonymous, the most frightening threats are from faceless, nameless, cowardly perpetrators who prevent us from being able to assess the true risk of a post. This cross-party bill’s approach not only provides social media users with more choice and more control over their online lives but tackles anonymous abuse”. 

“By adding that to the measures proposed in the draft OSB, and the Secretary of State’s determination to make what is illegal offline illegal online, we can create immediate, meaningful change that will be felt throughout the UK.”

Although her suggestions have drawn cross-party support, critics have raised concerns that removing online anonymity could threaten people’s rights to privacy and to freedom of expression. However, supporters argue that allowing people to remain anonymous online endangers people’s rights to be free from discrimination and from inhuman or degrading treatment.

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What Is The Social Media (Identity Verification) Bill?

As TMRBs rarely become legislation, Baillie’s bill is unlikely to become standalone law, but it could be folded into the OSB when it is scrutinised by the House of Commons. 

If introduced, the bill could make social media platforms request identity verification before people can create an account. But Baillie’s suggestions would not make this a requirement for everyone. 

The inspiration for the bill is twofold: online abuse and the spread of disinformation. Online abuse and harassment have been steadily growing in recent years, making headlines last year following the Euros when Black football players faced a tidal wave of abuse and after MPs shone a spotlight on the online abuse they face on a daily basis.

Organised disinformation networks exploit the ability to create fake accounts and false identities at scale

The spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories have long been fuelled by the internet, and social media anonymity has enabled this to continue relatively unchecked. 

“We must also be honest that the ease with which accounts can be created and used anonymously, or with pseudonyms, is a major driver of harmful behaviour,” said Baillie. “We see the spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories and extremism. Organised disinformation networks exploit the ability to create fake accounts and false identities at scale. They use those networks to create false and misleading content, to spread and amplify that content, and to distort and disrupt online conversations.”

Baillie cited Facebook’s own figures that show that at least 5% of its monthly active accounts (approximately 144 million out of over 2 billion accounts) are inauthentic and that even social media giants do not really know who is using their platforms. 

Baillie’s proposal is bolstered by other recent attempts to remove social media anonymity, notably when Katie Price launched a petition after an increase in anonymous cyber harassment against her son. Price’s petition garnered nearly 700,000 signatures and awaits parliamentary debate on 28 February.

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What Are The Drawbacks of Removing Online Social Media Anonymity? 

In its initial response to the petition, the government stated: “Restricting all users’ right to anonymity, by introducing compulsory user verification for social media, could disproportionately impact users who rely on anonymity to protect their identity. These users include young people exploring their gender or sexual identity, whistleblowers, journalists’ sources and victims of abuse”. 

“Introducing a new legal requirement, whereby only verified users can access social media, would force these users to disclose their identity and increase a risk of harm to their personal safety”.

Many supporters of keeping social media anonymity echo the government’s concerns, highlighting the importance of anonymity in protecting people from abuse and bolstering freedom of expression. 

“Many people who do vital work sharing information in situations where their safety might be at risk really do need to be anonymous, as any journalist reliant on their sources would know,” said Tim Kiely, criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers. “But even when considering those with no pressing need to remain anonymous, to frame the problems of the status quo as being in some way caused by anonymity on social media is misconceived.”

Though Baillie signposted the need for exemptions for marginalised people in her speech, there is still significant concern that removing social media anonymity would compromise vulnerable people’s freedoms. Online anonymity can be a shield, for example, for people who are not ready – or able – to be open about their sexuality or gender identity and makes crucial platforms accessible for whistleblowers seeking justice.

The sheer scope of work involved would be absolutely huge

Credit: Denny Muller / Unsplash

The sheer scope of work involved would be absolutely huge

“One of the things that always concerns me is that people who are calling for the removal of anonymity online generally tend to be operating from a position of privilege and of safety,” said Dr Claire Hardaker, a senior lecturer in forensic corpus linguistics  at Lancaster University. “It’s very easy to be online as, for instance, a straight, middle-class, white person. But if you are within any of the other intersections, such as working-class, LGBTQ+, or from a different ethnic group, that immediately puts you into a much more vulnerable position.”

Hardaker continued: “Instead of helping to protect people who need that protection, it would exacerbate existing problems, differences and injustice in society. As far as I’m concerned, we need the anonymity that social media provides to protect people who need that protection the most.”

Removing social media anonymity could reduce levels of online abuse and harassment; and yet many abusers are already content to perpetrate their abuse publicly. Several people who abused Black football players online were arrested and convicted after using accounts that included their real names. This is backed up by research into cyberbullying that showed that 91% of student victims in Scotland knew their online harassers.

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Removing Online Anonymity: A Slippery Slope?

Removing social media anonymity looks like a potential solution to harassment and disinformation online but its introduction could become a slippery slope towards rights violations. 

“It can really quickly become a route from stopping the small-time bad guys who are being really mean on the internet to a government who now has the capacity to carry out a human rights atrocity against a particular targeted group,” said Hardaker. 

The cost of introducing such a system may also be too astronomical for it to be enforced. While the OSB would impose financial penalties for social media giants who fail to combat abuse on their platforms, forging an entirely new system for online identity verification could be prohibitively expensive. 

“Take the benefits system, as a quick example. The benefits system is considered massively unwieldy and problematic and extremely expensive to run and that only affects a proportion of the entire country,” explained Hardaker. “You’re talking about a system that would have to be rolled out for everyone and everyone would have to agree, use it and not try to get around it as well. The sheer scope of work involved would be absolutely huge.”

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Could Data Mining Be The Price For Removing Anonymity? 

Implementing tools to limit social media anonymity also poses another threat: data mining. 

“Do we really want social media platforms to know who we are and where we live, and to be able to link all of our online activities to our offline selves?” said Hardaker. “It becomes a quick route from the social media platform having this valuable commercial data, to potentially handing it over to a government. I don’t see how corporations, particularly those that are looking to maximise profits, are going to resist that temptation.”

With the OSB largely placing responsibility for improving online protections on social media corporations, identity verification would place yet more power in their hands.

Although there are clear risks associated with removing social media anonymity there are also potential benefits

“The data needs to be protected carefully, ideally by an independent body such as the IOC, to ensure data breaches are minimised,” said Richard Michie, chief executive of The Marketing Optimist, a digital marketing agency. “I don’t think this is something the social media companies can handle with much public confidence.”

Even if the data was entrusted to the government’s oversight, the risk of data mining and manipulation remains a threat to people’s right to privacy. 

“I would really worry about how people’s data could be used against them, particularly in hyper-targeted political or social campaigns,” added Hardaker. “The government itself may not directly access this data but you have all kinds of lobbying groups, pressure groups and major corporations with vested interests, and a lot of these have huge sums of money and power at their disposal. They might potentially use that data to bring about real-world changes that aren’t necessarily in our best interests.”

Anonymity on the internet needs to become a thing of the past

Credit: Victoria Heath / Unsplash

Anonymity on the internet needs to become a thing of the past

What Are The Benefits of Removing Social Media Anonymity?

On the surface, abuse of online anonymity can appear to be an abstract and minor problem, but it affects people all over the UK. 

Research carried out by Opinium with Compassion in Politics showed that 72% of people who have experienced online abuse believe they were targeted by “anonymous or false accounts”. The same research also revealed that one in three people have seen extremist content and “fake news” shared by anonymous accounts. 

“Anonymity on the internet needs to become a thing of the past and people need to be accountable for what they say online and their actions,” said Paul Smith, chief executive of Baked Bean Marketing. 

“Upon taking on a new client, we have to run a series of training sessions on how to deal with anonymous comments and messages on their accounts from people who are setting out to do nothing but spread a little bit of misery. For me, it’s gone on too long now and it is time legislation was brought in to make people accountable for their actions and not be able to hide behind their computer screens.”

Although there are clear risks associated with removing social media anonymity, there are also potential benefits, particularly curtailing the spread of disinformation and reducing online harassment. 

Credit: Mimi Thian / Unsplash

“Rather than the utopia where all knowledge was available in relatively good faith, we’ve come to a point where social media and the internet can cause real harm and it is no longer possible to manage content online by consent alone,” said Michie. “I feel we’re now at a point in the internet’s evolution where individuals and businesses need to be transparent about who they are, to enable accountability and hopefully clarity.”

Under the OSB, expectations have been raised to expect multi-million-pound fines for social media giants who fail to protect vulnerable users. However, Baillie highlighted that its lack of specific measures fails to address anonymous abuse. 

She said: “If the proposals in my Bill were adopted within the Online Safety Bill, the regulator and social media platforms would understand from day one that there needs to be a change in how anonymous abuse is managed. The public would also experience immediate, tangible changes to their online experience and take back some control, rather than waiting to see whether there are more prosecutions and mega-fines.

But others argue that the culture of online abuse is borne out of the degradation of public discourse, not due to the protection of online anonymity. 

Kiely said: “They are the products of a degraded political and public discourse which social media companies have done a great deal to foment, not primarily because of their ability to make users anonymous, but because of their need to drive engagement for the sake of generating advertising and data-harvesting revenue incentivises them to push users in the direction of increasingly extreme and polarised content.”

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Could We Remove Online Anonymity Fairly?

Implementing a regulatory system for social media giants would be a legal minefield requiring intensive collaboration between public bodies and corporations. So, is it even possible to introduce it without infringing on people’s rights?

“The problem of how to practically enforce the verification of user details without intrusive measures like details of passports, driving licences or other documents strikes me as insurmountable in any society with a reasonable respect for privacy and civil liberties,” said Kiely. 

“The bill in its current form seems to recognise this. It proposes only to require social media companies to ‘offer identity verification processes to all users’, with no general compulsion to disclose such details. Attempting to implement anything more far-reaching than the current, quite limited form of the bill would be likely to infringe unacceptably on peoples’ rights to privacy.”

About The Author

Hannah Shewan Stevens Freelance Journalist

Hannah Shewan Stevens is an NCTJ-accredited freelance journalist, editor, speaker and press officer based in Birmingham. She acted as EachOther's Interim Editor from Summer 2021 to January 2022. Her areas of interest are broad-ranging but the topics she is most passionate about are disability, social justice, sex and relationships and human rights. Hannah believes in using her own voice and elevating others to create meaningful change in the world. She is also a sex columnist for The Unwritten and has recently completed her first accreditation in delivering Relationships and Sex Education.

Hannah Shewan Stevens is an NCTJ-accredited freelance journalist, editor, speaker and press officer based in Birmingham. She acted as EachOther's Interim Editor from Summer 2021 to January 2022. Her areas of interest are broad-ranging but the topics she is most passionate about are disability, social justice, sex and relationships and human rights. Hannah believes in using her own voice and elevating others to create meaningful change in the world. She is also a sex columnist for The Unwritten and has recently completed her first accreditation in delivering Relationships and Sex Education.