Stephen Kinsella has a great article in Aeon suggesting that the best way to reduce online abuse is to curtail anonymity.
I used to post under my real name on Aeon until just a couple of weeks ago but I changed to a pseudonym after a twinge of anxiety when I posted a comment about my mental health history on an article on Psyche. I decided that I did not want future employers to know my mental health history.
My pseudonym, Ragged Clown, provides a tiny amount of protection from future snoops and I use it on Twitter, Facebook and on my blog. People who know me, know who is the writer behind the disguise and it would only take a determined searcher about 10 minutes to unveil me using Google; but the hypothetically nosey employer would struggle to associate my nom de plume with the real me.
I hope that I am never offensive or abusive online (or anywhere else for that matter) but I do like to write about topics that are contentious. I blogged about one such topic today. Would I have written it the same way if I had to use my real name? Probably not. It would definitely affect my future employment prospects.
I should add that the concept of verification is separate from the concept of anonymity. Would it help reduce online abuse if we required users to verify their identity but allow them to remain publicly anonymous? Probably not.
As it happens, I’m the CEO of social media company myself and I wonder how I would build such controls into my own platform. I can’t think of any authority that I would trust to provide an identity verification service. Certainly not a government and certainly not the usual suspects: Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon. If I required members to verify their identity with a bank, I would lose half of them. If I required them to use their real identity, I would lose the rest. Third-party services would rapidly become associated with scams as we are seeing with NFTs at the moment.
It so happens that we almost never have a problem with abuse in our community (we have 100,000s of members). Certain topics (like politics) are banned and we have zero tolerance for abuse. In ten years, we have had to ask maybe 7 people to leave for breaking these rules. Perhaps once per week, a discussion boils over but light touch moderation and a quiet word with the culprits is usually enough to put things right.
On the whole, I think the idea of requiring users to verify themselves is a good one, but the software engineer inside me can’t help but think of the many problems that would need to be solved before it can become a reality.
I could imagine a multi-level requirement to verify your identity. Level One would require you to self-certify with a driver’s license or passport or whatever. That would suffice until the user broke the rules. At that point the offender would need to certify with a trusted authority. Level Two certification would be more onerous and would, in itself, constitute a punishment for bad behaviour. I would support a scheme like this that allows the vast majority to engage online peacefully while creating an additional burden for the tiny minority that cause most of the strife.
My final verdict: I’m tentatively on board with requiring identity verification but curtailing anonymity would change the character of social media entirely and, while it might prevent some of the abuses, the gains would justify the losses.