Why a real names policy won’t solve trolling

I don’t know how many times I’ve had to write about it, but it’s a lot. It comes up again and again. Anyway, once more I see that ‘real names’ are being touted as the solution to trolling. They aren’t. They won’t ever be – and in fact they’re highly likely to be counterproductive and deeply damaging to many of the vulnerable people they’re supposed to be protecting. Anyway, I’m not going to write something new, but give you an extract from my 2020 book, ‘What do we know and what should we do about Internet Privacy’ – which is relatively cheap (less than £10) and written, I hope, in language even an MP can understand. You can find it here or at any decent online bookseller.

Whenever there is any kind of ‘nastiness’ on social media – trolling, hate speech, cyber bullying, ‘revenge porn’ – there are immediate calls to force people to use their real names. It is seen as some kind of panacea, based in part on the idea that ‘hiding’ behind a false name makes people feel free to behave badly and the related idea that they would be ashamed to do so if they were forced to reveal their real names. ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’ is a compelling argument on the surface but when examined more closely it is not just likely to be ineffective abut counterproductive, discriminatory and with the side effect of putting many different groups of people at significant risk. Moreover, there are already both technical and legal methods to discover who is behind an online account without the negative side effects.

The empirical evidence, counterintuitive though it might seem, suggests that when forced to use their real names internet trolls actually become more rather than less aggressive. There are a number of possible explanations for this. It might be seen as a ‘badge of honour’. Sometimes being a troll is something to boast about – and showing your real identity gives you kudos. Having to use your real name might actually free you from the shackles of wanting to hide. Perhaps it just makes trolls feel there’s nothing more to hide.

Whatever the explanation, forcing real names on people does not seem to stem the tide of nastiness. Platforms where real names are required – Facebook is the most obvious here – are conspicuously not free from harmful material, bullying and trolling. The internet is no longer anything like the place where ‘nobody knows you’re a dog’, even if you are operating under a pseudonym. There are many technological ways to know all kinds of thing about someone on the internet regardless of ‘real-names’ policies. The authorities can break down most forms of pseudonymity and anonymity when they need to, while others can use a particular legal mechanism, the Norwich Pharmacal Order, to require the disclosure of information about an apparently anonymous individual from service providers when needed.

Even more importantly, requirements for real names can be deeply damaging to many people, as they provide the link between the online and ‘real-world’ identities. People operating under oppressive regimes – it should be no surprise that the Chinese government is very keen on real-names policies – are perhaps the most obvious, but whistle-blowers, people in positions of responsibility like police officers or doctors who want to share important insider stories, victims of domestic violence, young people who quite reasonably might not want their parents to know what they are doing, people with illnesses who wish to find out more about those illnesses, are just a start.

There are some specific groups who can and do suffer discrimination as a result of real-names policies: people with names that identify their religion or ethnicity, for a start, and indeed their gender. Transgender people suffer particularly badly – who defines what their ‘real’ name is, and how? Real names can also allow trolls and bullies to find and identify their victims – damaging exactly the people that the policies are intended to protect. It is not a coincidence that a common trolling tactic is doxxing – releasing documents about someone so that they can be targeted for abuse in the real world.

When looked at in the round, rather than requiring real names we should be looking to enshrine the right to pseudonymity online. It is a critical protection for many of exactly the people who need protection. Sadly, just as with encryption, it is much more likely that the authorities will push in exactly the wrong direction on this.