Why ending anonymity would not make social media better

Whenever the subject of disinformation, hate speech, or harassment on social media platforms comes up, someone inevitably suggests these problems could be solved if Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram outlawed anonymity and forced users to sign up using their real names. The past week has seen a revival of this argument: in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Andy Kessler said that trying to solve these problems by tweaking Section 230—the clause in the Communications Decency Act that gives digital platforms protection from liability for content they host—would be too difficult, and so ending anonymity is the only solution. The “know your customer” rule for Wall Street is designed to stop money laundering, Kessler suggested, so “maybe it can work for rhetoric laundering.” At the very least, he said, it would make it easier for people to sue random Twitter users for defamation, etc.

How would verifying the identity of users be accomplished? Kessler doesn’t really know for sure. “Require a credit card, like Apple does to use its app store? Maybe,” he writes. “A driver’s license? Passport? A trip to the post office or DMV?” Kessler has some company in his notions: Citing the article in a tweet, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, chairman of the chamber’s Homeland Security Committee, said he was “concerned that Congress’s involvement in Section 230 reform may lead to more harm than good,” and that one solution worth considering was “to end user anonymity on social media platforms. Social media companies need to know who their customers are so bad actors can be held accountable.”

Johnson was soon joined by Sen. John Kennedy, who says he is working on legislation that would require social media users to verify their identities. Doing this would “cause a lot of people to think about their words” before posting, Kennedy said. According to one news report, the senator is “confident the proposal would be constitutional” and added that “many newspapers require users to identify themselves in comment sections.”

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There are a number of reasons to be skeptical about the idea that removing anonymity would even be possible, let alone positive. For one thing, Jeff Kosseff, a law professor at the US Naval Academy, said the courts have repeatedly upheld a First Amendment right to anonymity, citing the anonymous authors of the Federalist Papers, among others, and this right has also been recognized for internet forums and other digital platforms.

In a 1995 case, for example, the Supreme Court was pretty explicit about the need to protect anonymity, according to Mike Masnick of Techdirt, a longtime free-speech advocate. “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” the court said in its decision, and “thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation—and their ideas from suppression.” In addition to significant doubts about whether it would be constitutional or not, Masnick and others note that requiring real names wouldn’t stop the problems that Johnson and Kennedy complain about. Anyone who has spent any time on Facebook is well aware that people are more than happy to say the most terrible things—to engage in abuse, harassment, and the peddling of disinformation—while using their real names.

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And free-speech advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union point out that anonymity protects a wide range of vulnerable people from potential backlash—not just in countries with totalitarian or repressive governments, but in the US. Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, or Watergate’s Deep Throat, have relied on anonymity in order to highlight wrongdoing at the highest levels of government, and newspapers and other media outlets rely (perhaps too much in some cases) on anonymous sources in order to report on corruption and other malfeasance. And in addition to those cases, there are countless survivors of sexual abuse, religious persecution, racism, and other evils who rely on anonymity to prevent reprisals. In short, requiring real names by law would probably be unconstitutional, wouldn’t prevent any of the harms that are usually mentioned, and could put people at risk.

Here’s more on anonymity:

  • Online aggression: Although many people believe that anonymity fuels abuse and harassment online, because it gives people the freedom to say whatever they wish without fear of reprisal, a recent study of online behavior found the exact opposite. According to the researchers, results from a major social media platform over a period of three years “show that in the context of online firestorms, non-anonymous individuals are more aggressive compared to anonymous individuals.”
  • An abuse of power: In an essay written when Google+ (the company’s ill-fated attempt at a social network) started requiring real names the same way that Facebook does, danah boyd, a sociologist and Microsoft researcher who spells her name without capital letters, wrote that such policies are “an abuse of power.” The people who most heavily rely on using pseudonyms in online spaces, boyd says, are typically “those who are most marginalized by systems of power. Real name policies are an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.”
  • The real world: Denise Paolucci, a former MySpace staffer, said on Twitter that she has been running enforcement teams for two decades at various social services, and “removing anonymity does nothing to reduce online abuse: in fact, platforms with real name or verification requirements have more frequent and more destructive cases of abuse.” Such policies assume that people will only be abusive anonymously, she says, and “that presumption is 100 percent contrary to fact. People are utterly vile proudly, openly, and publicly under their offline identity.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • India has threatened to punish Twitter if it doesn’t comply with a government request to restore a block on accounts connected to tweets about farmers’ protests against it.
  • Alex Cranz, the senior consumer tech editor at Gizmodo, said she was fired from the company last Friday for her involvement in a union letter about an “internal tech product” sent to management, according to a report by The Wrap. Cranz also said her termination came after members of management approached her with “false allegations” about her work performance. Kelly Bourdet, former editor in chief of Gizmodo, said in a tweet that she had filed a formal complaint with the company’s HR department about what she called the “bizarre and overt targeting” of Cranz. G/O Media, which owns Gizmodo, said the accusations were “meritless.”
  • Fox News host Sean Hannity’s discomfort in the wake of the election “is a window into the current tumult inside Fox News, as the former president’s former favorite network tries to find its place in a post-Trump reality,” the Washington Post argues. “The end of a presidential campaign is often a time for news organizations to take stock and recalibrate their strategies. But never before had a network been so closely affiliated with a commander in chief.” Now, it says, “Fox is seeking to navigate its future without the ear of a sitting president or even his angry voice from exile.”
  • Andrew Marantz writes for The New Yorker about John Sullivan, who says he was present during the riot at the Capitol on January 6 and filmed the event as a journalist/documentarian, “going out there and just live-streaming the events that are transpiring, so that people can see it on the Internet.” But others have called him an agent provocateur, a con artist, and a thrill-seeking instigator. “There has never been a clean way to delineate professional journalists from everyone else, and the boundary has only grown blurrier in the selfie-stick era,” says Marantz. While the courts have been clear about the First Amendment’s protection for speech, the clause that protects freedom of the press “remains a fuzzy area of the law.”
  • Lauren Harris, who writes CJR’s Journalism Crisis Project newsletter, describes some of what she has learned after nine months of focusing on newsrooms and publications across the country. “When I began writing this newsletter, in June, I imagined the local journalism crisis as a graph with a simple line, rising and falling with each wave of cuts, marking how the world of news was getting worse or getting better. After nine months of reporting, I’ve realized it’s not that simple. It’s not just about what the numbers mean for those who were laid off or furloughed, but sometimes, how the newsroom that is left survives. A graph shows what is lost and gained, but not what it means to undergo such radical fluctuation and change.”
  • Patrick Steel, the chief executive of Politico since 2017, said on Tuesday that he will leave the company this summer. In an email to the staff, the former investment banker and special assistant to President Bill Clinton said he had decided it was “the right time to start the next chapter of my career.” Steel’s decision to leave is the latest in a series of high-profile moves at Politico. The reporters behind its Playbook newsletter, Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, as well as congressional reporter John Bresnahan, left in December to start a competing site, Punchbowl News.
  • ViacomCBS is confronting a widening crisis over allegations of mistreatment in its TV stations group, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. The paper says in the wake of a previous investigation into allegations of racism and misogyny at CBS’s Philadelphia TV station, current and former employees of CBS’s flagship station, WCBS-TV Channel 2 in New York, have alleged that they also worked in a “hostile environment” where Black, Latino, Asian, and gay employees were treated poorly, and stories that occurred in Black and Latino neighborhoods were at times overlooked.
  • The BBC has been fined the equivalent of $34,000 for contempt of court after it broadcast a clip from a virtual court hearing to half a million people, the Press Gazette reports. In November 2020, regional TV news program BBC South East Today used a “scene-setting” clip of a judicial review hearing into a controversial decision to grant planning permission to a “fracking” site in Surrey. The broadcaster could have received a fine of more than $60,000 for both recording and transmitting the clip, but the fine was reduced because the BBC immediately accepted liability and apologized.
  • The Compass Experiment, a local-news project started in 2019 by McClatchy with funding from the Google News Initiative, says its two independent local sites—Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Longmont Leader in Longmont, Colorado—will become part of larger entities. The Youngstown site is going to become part of McClatchy’s news division and will be run by an executive from the chain, while operation of the Colorado site will be taken over by Village Media, a Canadian-based chain of local news sites.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.