Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Abolishing Online Anonymity Will Not Tackle Abuse

Hussein Kesvani, in an opinion piece for the Guardian:

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.

My pet theory is that our fractured relationship with other users of big online platforms has nothing to do with anonymity and everything to do with standards. Pseudonymity and anonymity have been a part of the internet since it was created. Many users of forums and, before them, BBSes were only known by their handles. The biggest thing that has changed in the last fifteen-or-so years is a weakening of moderation efforts and community standards. It used to be that you had to go to specific websites known for users’ ability to test the limits of good taste and free speech, but that approach was mainstreamed. In the earlier days of Twitter, company executives famously referred to it as the “free speech wing of the free speech party”. Alexis Ohanian repeatedly praised Reddit’s laissez-faire approach to speech, and Facebook has wrestled with moderation issues for well over a decade now. Many users may have been repelled by rampant abuse, and those who remained were able to set a standard for new users to grow accustomed to.

Lax moderation in the founding years of these platforms undoubtably aided their growth, but that rapid ascendency also compounded their inability to moderate as they grew. Mike Masnick of Techdirt has said that moderation is impossible at scale, but I think that is partly because platforms are not moderating at a small scale. Trying to embed community standards into a platform hosting hundreds of millions of users is a fraught exercise. It has to start when these platforms are nascent.

That is my little theory, but it is sort of irrelevant. There is no way to reset platforms to the size they were at their founding so that we can try this whole thing again. I do not know how we, collectively, find a better way to express ourselves online now that the standard has been set. I do not think banning anonymity is a realistic or effective solution. Platforms’ lowered tolerance for abuse is, I think, helpful, if long overdue. But some change perhaps comes from understanding that we are often communicating with real people. I am not arguing that it will solve racism, but Kesvani is right: requiring verified identification to use web platforms will only give a superficial impression of improving on that front, too.