Real Names: the wrong tool for the wrong problem

The drive towards enforcing ‘real names’ on the internet – and on social media in particular – is gathering momentum at the moment. Katie Price’s petition to require people to provide verifiable ID before opening a social media account is just a new variation on a very old theme – and though well intentioned (as are many of the similar drives) it is badly misdirected and not just unlikely to solve any of the problems it is intended to solve it would make things worse – and make it even harder to find genuine solutions to what are, for the most part, genuine problems.

The attraction of ending anonymity

Ending – or significantly curbing – anonymity on social media is superficially attractive. ‘They wouldn’t behave that way if they had to use their real names’ is one argument. ‘They only do it because we can’t find them’ is another. Neither of these things are really true. Evidence that people are less aggressive or less antagonistic if they are forced to use their real names is mixed at best – and indeed some large scale studies have shown that trolls can be worse if they have to use their real names. More importantly, however, curtailing anonymity would have very damaging consequences for many vulnerable people, as well as distracting us from the real problems behind a lot of trolling. It isn’t the anonymity that’s the problem, it’s the trolling – and the reasons for the trolling are far deeper than the names people use when they troll. It isn’t the anonymity, it’s the aggression, it’s the anger, it’s the hate and it’s the lies. Whilst anger, hate and lies are endemic in our society – and notably successful in our media and our politics – that anger, hate and lies will be manifested online and in the social media in particular.

Trolls don’t need anonymity….

There are many assumptions behind the idea that real names would stop trolling. One is that people imagine that trolls are ashamed of their trolling, so would no longer do it if they were forced to do it using their real names. For some trolls, this may be the case – but for others exactly the opposite is the case. They may even be proud of their trolling, happy to be seen to be calling out their enemies and abusing them. For still more, they don’t consider themselves to be trolls, so wouldn’t think this applies to them. In troll-fights, it’s very common for both sides to think they’re the good guys, fighting the good fight against the evil on the other side. Their victims are the real trolls, they’re just defending themselves or fighting their own corner. This has been a characteristic of many of the major trolling phenomena of the last few decades – GamerGate is one of the most dramatic example. Neither side in a conflict thinks they’re the Nazis, they both think they’re the French Resistance.

The downsides of ‘real names’.

Another is that forcing real names only has downsides for trolls. No-one else has anything to fear from having to use their real names – or having to provide verifiable IDs for their social media accounts. Very much the opposite is true. There are many people who rely on anonymity or pseudonymity – some for their own protection, as they have enemies who might target them (whistle-blowers, victims of spousal abuse, gay teens with conservative parents, people living under oppressive regimes etc) – others to enable their freedom of speech (people in responsible positions who might be compromised are just one of the examples) including those who want their words to be taken on face value rather than being judged because of who has said them. ‘Real’ names can reveal things about a person that make them a target – revealing ethnicity, religion, gender, age, class, and much more – and in the current era that revelation can be more precise, more detailed and more damaging because of the kind of profiling possible through data analysis. Forcing real names is something that privileged people (including people like me) may not understand the impact of – because it won’t damage them or put them at risk. For millions of others, it would. People who are in that kind of privileged position should think twice before assuming their own position is the only one that matters.

Real names make the link between the online person and the ‘real’ person easier. That’s good when you think it will allow you to ‘catch’ the bad guy – but bad when you realise it will allow the bad guys to catch their victims. There’s a reason ‘doxxing’ is a classic troll tool – revealing documents about their victims is a way to punish them. Forcing real names makes doxxing much easier – in practice, it’s like automatically doxxing people. Moreover, even if you don’t force real names but you do require some kind of verified ID, you’re providing an immediate source of doxxing information for the trolls to use to find their victims. You might as well be painting ‘HACK ME PLEASE’ in red letters 100 feet high on your database of IDs. It’s a recipe for disaster for a great many people

What is the real problem?

This is the question that is often missed. What are we worried about? There are many forms of trolling – but there are two that are particularly important here. The first is the specific, individual direct and vicious attacks – death and rape threats, misogyny and racism etc. Real names won’t stop this – even if it can be enforced – and we already have tools to deal with it, even if they’re not as often or easily applied as they should be. ‘Anonymous’ trolls can be and are identified and prosecuted for these kinds of attacks. We have the technological tools to do this, and the law is in place to prosecute them (the Malicious Communications Act 1988, S127 of the Communications Act 2003 and more). People have been successfully prosecuted and jailed for trolling of this kind. There wasn’t any need for real names or digital IDs for this. It’s not easy, it’s not quick, and it’s not ‘summary justice’ – but it can be done.

The second is the ‘pile-on’ where a victim gets attacked by hundreds or thousands of smaller scale bits of nastiness simultaneously – often from many anonymous accounts. Some of the attacks are as vicious as the individual direct attacks mentioned above, but many won’t be – and wouldn’t easily be prosecuted under the laws mentioned above. It can be the sheer weight of the numbers of attacks that can be overwhelming – you can block one or two attackers, you can mute more, you can ignore some others, but when there are hundreds every minute it is impossible to deal with other than by locking your account or withdrawing from social media. This is where technological solutions – and social media company action – could help, and indeed is helping. The ability on Twitter, for example, to automatically mute all people with default pictures, can clean up a timeline a bit – taking out the most obvious of trolls. More of this is happening all the time – and again, does not require real names or digital IDs.

What is more important in the latter example – and indeed in the former example – is why it happens. Pile-ons happen because they’re instigated – and they’re instigated not by anonymous trolls, but by exactly the opposite. By the big names, the ‘blue ticks’, the mainstream media, the mainstream politicians. When a blue tick (and I’m a blue tick) quote-tweets someone with a sarcastic comment, the thousands (or millions) of followers who see that tweet can and will pile in on the person quote tweeted. The sarcastic comment from a big name is the cause of the pile on, though in itself it isn’t harmful (and certainly not a prosecutable death threat or piece of hate speech). If you go after the individual (and sometimes anonymous) who does the death threat without considering the reason they targeted that individual, you don’t really do anything to solve the problem.

And that’s the bottom line. Right now, our political climate encourages hatred and anger. The ‘war on woke’, Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Modi, the Daily Mail, all encourage it. Anonymity on social media isn’t the problem. Our society and our political climate is the problem. Ending anonymity would cause vast and permanent damage to exactly the people who we need to protect, and for only a slight chance of making it easier to catch a small subsection of those who cause problems online. It should be avoided strenuously.

(For more serious an academic analysis of this issue, see Chapter 8 of my 2018 book The Internet, Warts and All, or my 2020 book What do we know and what should we do about internet privacy)