Why ending online anonymity is not the ‘quick solution’ to social media abuse

The rise in social media abuse has led to a chorus of calls to end anonymity online - but experts have warned NationalWorld of the risks and unintended consequences of such a move

Online anonymity is often cited as the cause of social media abuse - but the solution is far from simple (Image: Kim Mogg / JPI)

Experts have warned against suggested plans to scrap online anonymity, saying the move could have “severe” consequences for domestic abuse survivors, whistleblowers and activists.

Calls for the Government to introduce legislation which would compel social media companies to require some form of identification in order to sign up to their service have heightened in the aftermath of Sir David Amess’ death.

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MPs from across the political spectrum are calling for the Government to beef up the Online Harms Bill, which is expected to be introduced in 2022, to ban online anonymity.

Dr Laura Higson-Bliss, an expert on social media abuse and freedom of expression based at Keele University, says that ending online anonymity would do little to solve online abuse.

She says it’s a “social problem” rather than just a social media problem.

Speaking to NationalWorld, Dr Higson-Bliss said: “Part of me thinks we’re going down the anonymity route because we think it’s a quick solution. We think it’s something we can implement quickly and show we’re being proactive, but not necessarily thinking of the repercussions and the potential harms.

She says that while the measure enjoys public support “there’s no evidence to suggest that it will actually solve the issue”.

“We forget that there’s a place for anonymity online,” Dr Higson-Bliss adds. “We do need it to protect our democracy and our freedom of expression. Particularly if you think about the wider context and reforms to the policing of protest, we need to be really careful what we’re implementing to make sure there isn’t any abuse that can take place from those higher than ourselves.”

The real challenge

Wider issues of funding and staffing are a much bigger impediment to online crimes being investigated than online anonymity, according to Dr Higson-Bliss.

“In terms of cracking down on online abuse, anonymity is not necessarily a road block because everyone has an IP address and it’s all linked. It’s more about having the resources for people to actually be able to look into these things.

“In terms of policing, there is a problem that there aren’t enough police officers and enough money. There are times when police officers need to make decisions about tackling something that happens physically or something that happens online - getting rid of anonymity isn’t going to solve that.”

There’s ‘no evidence’ to suggest that anonymity will solve the issue of online abuse - Dr Laura Higson-Bliss (Photo: Shutterstock)

The importance of changing attitudes

She says the solution is education, not ending anonymity, pointing out that “there are people who will happily say whatever they want online, with their real name and a photo of themselves”.

“This is where it needs to come back to education,” she says.

“We’re not going to tackle it overnight, it’s going to take a long time”.

“We need to embed within schools a digital literacy approach, not just how to use technology, but how to conduct themselves while they’re online. We teach manners, we should be teaching social media etiquette as well.”

The unwanted consequences of ending online anonymity

Not only would scrapping only anonymity not do much to actually prevent online abuse and the harms associated with it, but it could lead to a wide range of unforeseen and unwanted consequences.

Einar Thorsen, Professor of Journalism and Communication, says that removing online anonymity “fails on the part of technical practicality” because it would rely on potentially vulnerable third-party systems and would “drive people to other platforms”.

Facebook has a ban on anonymity but there’s still an issue with online abuse (Photo: Shutterstock)

Thorsen argues that “any system designed to remove anonymity or provide encryption backdoors for the purpose of tackling crime is simultaneously opening those doors for criminals to abuse”.

“Domestic abuse survivors may be tracked down by abusers; whistleblowers or journalistic sources may be identified and coerced into silence; activists can be persecuted by political opponents, police or authoritarian regimes.

“Removing online anonymity also eradicates the potential safe places for anyone wishing to have their privacy protected, and still participate in public discourse and have their voice heard.”

The benefits of anonymity

While there is reason to believe that banning online anonymity may have some positive effects when it comes to online abuse, Dr Higson-Bliss says it is not the path we should go down.

She said: “There’s a place for anonymity online, we do need it to protect our democracy and our freedom of expression.

“Particularly if you think about the wider context and reforms to the policing of protest, we need to be really careful what we’re implementing to make sure there isn’t any abuse that can take place from those higher than ourselves.”

Dr Higson-Bliss points out that Facebook has a ban on anonymity but “we still see an issue with online abuse”.

She adds: “My opinion is that I don’t think anonymity combats this problem if you have to use a real name. There’s a place for anonymity, there’s a place for whistleblowing, particularly in the age we’re in now, we need that secrecy.

“Think about young people who are working out their sexuality for instance, if they come from a very strong religious background, they might need that anonymity to express who they truly are but with that protection from people finding out who they are.”

Then there’s the practical issue of how you verify someone’s identity. “We know Facebook isn’t always that interested in protecting our data,” Dr Higson-Bliss says. “If we had to submit our driving license for instance we need to know that’s protected, because there could be real consequences if not.”

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