Abolishing online anonymity won’t tackle the underlying problems of racist abuse | Hussein Kesvani
As a person of colour who has spent much of their life online, I’ve dealt with my fair share of racist abuse. From anonymous accounts on niche forums about anime hurling unprintable slurs, to more easily identifiable people – with their real names and locations published – on Facebook and Twitter sending me death threats. As a result, I imagine that my tolerance for racial abuse on the internet is higher than average. I’ve even gone as far as meeting people who have sent me torrents of online abuse to try to understand what motivated them.
Even so, I still know – and feel – how awful it is. The posts, messages and emails stick with me long after they’ve been sent and the users have been blocked, reported and banned. It’s a reminder that being treated as “other” and degraded is part-and-parcel of existing on the internet as a non-white person. Moreover, while there was a time when posting on forums was something relatively few people did, the dominance of participatory timeline media in our personal and professional lives has changed all that. You don’t need to be in the darker, closed-off corners of the internet to experience a deluge of harassment and abuse.
It makes sense, then, that in the wake of England’s Black footballers receiving a storm of racist abuse on their social media profiles after the Euro 2020 final, we have seen renewed calls for mandatory ID verification to allow people to have social media accounts. Since Sunday, more than half a million people have signed a petition calling for platforms to ban online anonymity, while organisations such as the UK’s Chartered Institute for Information Technology have called for MPs to support ID verification – while maintaining the possibility for anonymity – on the grounds that social platforms should not be “consequence-free” areas for prejudice to run rampant. Demands for the end of online anonymity were vocalised earlier this year when a number of Black players were targeted and harassed on social media, while the model Katie Price has told MPs that she would like to see anonymity removed as part of the online safety bill. It is a position that she has reached through the experience of seeing her son Harvey being frequently verbally abused online.
There is an argument that by forcing people to reveal themselves publicly, or giving the platforms access to their identities, they will be “held accountable” for what they write and say on the internet. Though the intentions behind this are understandable, I believe that ID verification proposals are shortsighted. They will give more power to tech companies who already don’t do enough to enforce their existing community guidelines to protect vulnerable users, and, crucially, do little to address the underlying issues that render racial harassment and abuse so ubiquitous.
First, it’s worth noting that many social media platforms already require users to present some form of personal identification when using their services. Facebook, for instance, requires users to provide their real names and phone numbers when signing up: if challenged, they have to provide identification to prove their identities. Even on social media servicessuch as Parler, which has been connected to movements such as QAnon and where white nationalist conspiracies run rampant, users have to upload a valid passport or driving license in order to be able to directly message people on the platform. While social media platforms are not under any legal obligation in the US or UK to hold valid identities of users, it’s clear that even on platforms with ID requirements, harassment and abuse are abundant.
Second, the enforcement of mandatory ID verification could place vulnerable groups of people – from whistleblowers to persecuted minority groups seeking refuge – at significant risk. The Conservative backbencher David Davis has already warned of the censorious potential of the online safety bill, as it will require social media companies to remove any content that the regulator considers to be “harmful” or a potential threat to society. Mandatory verification poses a risk of criminalising dissidents or shutting off an avenue of expression for, say, migrants with precarious residency statuses. This is amplified when one considers what might happen if a tech company holding sensitive identification information is subject to hacking or an accidental data leak.
Perhaps more important, though, is that mandatory ID verification would allow certain politicians to act as if the issue had been solved, leaving underlying causes untouched. While social media platforms might provide a venue for the crudest forms of harassment, it is difficult to justify tech companies removing this material when such attitudes continue to exist in Britain’s major newspapers and media outlets in the form of easy-to-share online content. It’s not only online trolls who claim the current reckoning with racism in Britain is a capitulation to revolutionary Marxism – you can find that argument in respectable newspapers. When senior ministers such as Priti Patel refuse to condemn the booing of footballers showing their own solidarity, they are effectively giving permission and encouragement to what might be termed anti-anti-racist sentiment. Indeed, the mistake that those advocating for mandatory ID verification make is not to believe that social media platforms make it easy to racially harass an individual without fear of exposure, but rather to assume that such behaviour happens in a vacuum.
Indeed, many of the racist insults I have received from anonymous accounts have referenced sensationalist newspaper stories about “Muslim grooming gangs”. Perhaps mandatory verification would limit the amount of openly racist abuse on the social platforms we all use, but it ignores the reasons why it is so prevalent and why it has so much purchase in these digital environments.