Social media: the beast of the digital world. It wields great power with little responsibility. It is a wild anarchical land where the demand for certain content drives the supply of it, with little regulation of this flow of information.
But what if this was all about to change? Recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison labelled online trolls as ‘cowards’ and social media their ‘palace’, after Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce called for social media companies to take more responsibility to prevent online misinformation and harassment. Morrison also condemned a lack of accountability on digital platforms, even proposing that anonymous users “should have to identify who they are”.
This comes after a High Court decision which ruled that social media companies are legally responsible for defamatory comments by users. And the US Senate is holding an ongoing hearing concerning the loose regulations on social media companies, particularly on the adverse effects on adolescents.
For platforms which previously prided themselves on being a free “marketplace of ideas,” are we looking at the end of social media as we know it?
I invite you to reimagine social media if Morrison’s suggestion of identifying anonymous users becomes reality. No longer do users go to-and-fro as they will, save a temporary ban or post take-down if enough people report them. Anything one does on the internet will be identifiable, as though they had taken that action in real life.
What Morrison is alluding to is that digital lawlessness has shone a light on the dark side of humanity. Social media algorithms have facilitated the rise of echo chambers, extremist beliefs and the rapid spread of misinformation – most notably in January 2021 with the US Capitol riots resulting from false news concerning the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential election. And the effects of cyberbullying and consuming certain content on teens’ self-esteem and body image are well-documented.
So perhaps this new order of social media won’t be so bad. People will be accountable for what they post. No longer can someone hide behind a screen and create harmful content with no ramifications within their own life. Society will keep people in check through the threat of social ostracisation for unacceptable posts, and it will be easier to remove users from the platform or pursue legal action against them. This has the potential to significantly reduce misinformation and hate speech.
A federal grand jury in 2018 found 12 Russian military officers guilty of purposefully using false domain registration names to distribute harmful material to Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. If there had been systems in place to link accounts to a person’s identity, this interference would have been significantly harder to stage.
But if online anonymity is removed, what we do have to worry about could be significantly worse.
Anonymity can be beneficial and necessary. Consider online safe spaces for marginalised groups, such as the LGBT+ community. If people in these spaces were forced to identify themselves, they may be put in risk of real-life harm, ranging from social isolation to physical violence.
Additionally, Morrison’s comments are a worrying sign of the state expanding its control and surveillance over Australians. In September 2018, Parliament passed a new surveillance bill, which gave police a wide range of exceptions to get around warrants, circumvent anonymising technologies and modify potential evidence that could be used in court cases. Activists are greatly concerned that forced identification could bolster the ability of governments and social media corporations to monitor people and shut down protest activity.
But ultimately, Morrison misses the point and places the blame on an amorphous “threat” of anonymous trolls – rather than targeting the practices of social media companies. Whilst there should be regulation on social media platforms to ensure safety of users, banning anonymity is probably not the way to go about it. Rather, social media companies must face penalties for not enforcing safety checks and removing illegal content. Social media companies already have the technology to do this, they just don’t, as a recent whistleblower from Facebook revealed, because controversial and extremist content grows their platforms. In turn, advertisers are more inclined to pay to have their products or, even more dangerously, misleading content, published.
We need to have regulation on the internet to deflate the ramifications of harmful behaviours. But banning anonymity will do none of that. It will stifle the good aspects of the internet, preventing people from expressing themselves in ways they don’t feel comfortable doing offline.