In praise of anonymity

There has been, in recent weeks and months, a growing clamour that Something Must Be Done. There is too much nastiness on social media, and it has to stop.

A casual look at Twitter and Facebook will easily show that to be true; there is apalling racism, and misogyny, and abuse of all sorts directed and many people, especially those in the public eye.

All too often, that abuse comes from accounts that are, to all intents and purposes, anonymous. Even if they do have a real-sounding name, there’s no guarantee that that is who they really are. And so, something must be done.

That ‘something’ is, increasingly, a demand that social media companies verify people’s accounts, because apparently if people are not able to be anonymous, they will not spew vicious hatred towards other people on the internet.


What a charming, naive view. Facebook has a ‘Real Names’ policy, though it’s perhaps not as strictly enforced as some people would like. That said, many many people do use their real name on the site. Including, last month, people who proudly posted that they were taking part in an illegal assault upon the Capitol. Somehow, knowing that actions could be linked to a real name wasn’t an incentive to behave. Yet we’re told to believe that people will stop being racist to footballers, or sexist to women, or anti-semitic, if only Twitter knows exactly who they are.

I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that for a minute. And I also believe that there are many reasons why people do need anonymity.

Not everyone is like you

What those railing against anonymity often forget is that not everyone has the same sort of life as themselves. I’ve been running various spaces on the internet now for over thirty years, and many of those have been related to the gay community, or to subsections of it.

For people within that community, for a large chunk of that time, in many places around the world, being openly gay could be a threat to your livelihood, your home or even your life. Being outspoken about gay rights can still result in a torrent of abuse raining down upon you – and even more so in the case of rights for transgender people.

Victims of domestic or sexual abuse find the relative anonymity of the internet a safe way that they can access support from professional organisations, or from other victims. They can do so safe in the knowledge that their abuser won’t be able to find and interact with them.

People with addictions, or chronic diseases can likewise find vital support, without having to reveal too much about themselves. Those who are concerned about improper things happening in their workplace can reach out and blow the whistle, or find legal advice before doing so, safe in the knowledge that there won’t be a trail linking them back to their employer.

These – and many other – reasons are why so many people find the relative anonymity of a service like Twitter invaluable. You may never have been in the same position as any of those I’ve mentioned, but please try, for a while, to imagine that you are. How much harder would it be to reach out and seek help or support, if you knew you could be ‘outed’ ?

But what about the hate?

Only a fool would deny the hate and bigotry that can be found on Twitter – but let’s be honest about this, it goes in many directions. The venom directed at some who stand up for progressive causes, like the rights of transgender people, is just as vicious as that directed against those who stand against them. There really are harsh, intolerant words on both sides.

However, there is one area in which there really isn’t equality – and that’s when it comes to the treatment of those bullying and abusing.

To a very large extent, in my experience of online communities, tone can be set, and one of the ways it is set is by the way in which rules are enforced; and in that regard, Twitter has failed miserably.

You don’t have to look far to find cases where women have reported horrific threats made to them, only to be told that it doesn’t breach community standards. Or for someone quoting a threat made to them to have their account suspended, while the person who originally wrote the words remains untouched.

Worse, there appears to be very much a difference in the way high profile commentators and politicians are treated, compared with most other users. Only recently, a writer for a UK paper was haranguing another poster to the point where people were seriously concerned about the mental health and well-being of the person being attacked. This asymmetric warfare of the Names against the Nameless is all too often enabled by the way in which complaints appear to be policed online.

And, reprehensible though it is, all too often the abuse hurled online is largely amplifying and expanding on things said by those who have been given a free passs. Columnists decry “taking a knee” as a useless gesture, and then those footballers who do so receive a ton of abuse.

To pretend that the latter is entirely unrelated to the former is, once again, utterly naive. Words – even those couched in the subtlety of dog whistles – have consequences.

And if there are to be consequences, they should surely not just be for the Nameless, gently nudged onwards by whatever Blue Ticks they follow. Those who whip up the mob, whether from their Twitter account, or via their newspaper column, should also share the blame.

No solution at all

The solution to anonymity that’s often proposed is that companies like Twitter should somehow record identity information for their users. This, apparently, solves problems in various ways.

Firstly, the fact that someone knows who people really are makes them behave. As I said above, I think this is patent nonsense; the pile-ons encouraged by Twitter’s Blue Tick brigade, and the willingness of people actually using their real names to do really stupid things suggests that this is not, in fact, a disincentive to being abusive online.

Secondly, once this information is stored by a company like Twitter, then they will be able to produce the real name when someone does something completely beyond the pale, like sending racist abuse. Again, this presupposes both that the threat of being known will make people stop and also that such requests will be handled in an even-handed manner. Yet so far, nothing about the differential treatment sites like Twitter give to people suggest it will be even-handed. It’s more likely to make it easier than before for the likes of high profile columnists to ‘take down’ those who dare criticise them.

Thirdly, the advocates of this sort of solution think, this is surely better than government having control over things. Because that smacks too much of state control of the internet, which is A Bad Thing. Somehow, apparently, giving that sort of control to a company that didn’t do anything to sanction Donald Trump until people had actually been killed by his supporters is better.

Shall we have an outing?

Those with a reasonable memory will recall the various celebrity phone hacking scandals of the UK press a while back. Essentially, it turned out that it was all too easy to talk people at phone companies into giving you a celebrity’s number, resetting their voicemail PIN, and various other tricks to get access to things you shouldn’t have access to.

It’s pretty much a certainty that, if internet companies like Twitter have verified personal information, that it will be abused. It might leak – and imagine the identity theft chaos that would ensue if, for instance, scans or details like passport numbers were obtained by hackers.

Or, more likely, it’s going to be abused. The same sort of people who used deceit to obtain records from phone companies will turn their sights on social media firms.

“Oh, but there will be safeguards,” you might say. Will there? Will companies that outsource the checking of photos for pornography to poorly paid, poorly supported staff in low-wage countries not just do the same with identity information? Will companies that appear unable to tell the difference between someone repeating hateful words said to them and the original author of those words really be sure that the person calling up to obtain the identity of TrueBrit90983980 is who they say they are?

The answer, in my view, is almost certainly No.

And that means that, whether it’s a columnist intent on destroying the livelihood of someone who crossed them online, an abuser seeking to find where their victim has fled to, or an angry party wanting to expose their ex for being involved in particular practices, this will be abused.

People genuinely and sincerely campaigning for rights will be outed. People living in fear will face even more uncertainty, and plenty of people may end up lists of perverts, freaks and dissenters.

So what’s the solution?

How, then, do you stop abuse on social media? What’s my solution, if I don’t think this is the one?

I’m not convinced there is a single one – but I also think that social media does, to a degree, respond to a tone set from above. And that tone can be set not just by the social media platforms itself, but by society as a whole.

Abuse happens because over recent years politicians and public figures have themselves indulged in abuse. Because the media has become complicit in that abuse. We all too often turn a blind eye to dog whistles, or demonise the other side of an argument, exaggerating to the point where people start to believe the worst of their enemy – for all too often now, one cannot simply be an opponent.

We have reached a stage where those on either side of an argument all too often believe that they are righteous, while the others are not. Where rhetoric soars and motives are questioned, while those who have some common purpose are given a free pass.

Worse still, we are about to embark on an experiment in the UK with more nakedly partisan news broadcasters, who I am sure will help amplify the views on one side, leading to pushing back from the other and, almost certainly, more strife on social media.

The solution to that is not to make those who need anonymity more vulnerable. It is not to make it perversely easier for ordinary people to be called to account, just as those with a platform seek to push the boundaries of what it’s acceptable for them to say.

Social media needs effective policies for abuse and reporting. Those policies need to be enforced without fear or favour, no matter the following, or the media profile of an offender.

Cleaning house starts with those who set the tone. It should not begin by seeking to frighten the Nameless into quiet submission.

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