It’s a topic that has been debated for some time, but in the wake of numerous England players receiving a torrent of racist abuse online, it might be time to reconsider mandatory ID for social media accounts.
As it currently stands, anyone can create an account on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. This is of course provided they have an active email address. For most people, this isn’t a problem as the majority don’t use these platforms to abuse and harass others.
Unfortunately, there is a small, but very vocal minority who use social media platforms to abuse and harass others. This was highlighted yesterday following the England vs Italy UEFA EUR0 2020 final in which Marcus Rashford, Jordan Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed penalties in the shootout that closed the game.
Following the loss, numerous users online flocked to the players’ social media accounts and flooded the comments with racist abuse. I won’t show it here, because I don’t want to give people like that a platform. However, it was a disturbing indictment of the racism that is still prevalent in our society.
The concept of a free internet is an important one, and we should encourage freedom of information and free access to the internet. However, unlike real life, it is difficult to apprehend individuals for illegal and prejudiced behaviour on a completely free internet. 20 to 30 years ago, this wasn’t as much of an issue as there were very few platforms for people to be abusive on.
In 2021, the internet is a very different place. Several social media platforms provide a space for racist, homophobic and transphobic abuse with very little monitoring of such behaviour. Each platform bans accounts, but it doesn’t take long for someone to create another dummy account . If such a thing were to happen for real, the police would apprehend someone for behaving that way. Therefore, why should the internet be any different?
One of the biggest problems is that most platforms, i.e. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter typically leave its policing to users, requiring them to report abuse when they spot it. Twitter has an estimated revenue of $3.72 billion. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, reported a revenue of $86 billion last year. These tech giants have got the money to tackle racism and abuse on its platform. However, both still take the lazy approach of user-driven reporting.
What is the answer?
The only real way to tackle online abuse of this nature is to hold people truly accountable. In order to stop people hiding behind anonymous avatars and fake email addresses, Facebook and Twitter could start requiring a verifiable form of ID in order for users to sign up. Having something that can tie you to a home address or an identifiable piece of information will limit users from being abusive and bullying others online.
While it would be difficult to split each platforms' users, there is a way to keep everyone on Twitter and Facebook without removing them. Two different types of accounts would allow users without any form of ID to continue using the site. However, their interactions with other users could be limited. Those with ID would be able to interact and use the site as we do now.
This does bring up the issue of who does and doesn’t have access to photo ID. Last year, the government tried to incorporate mandatory ID for voting in elections. It was a move that meant many in society potentially couldn't vote. Social media isn’t quite as important as the right to vote. However, it would still be unethical to deny people who don’t have photo ID the right to use it. There’s no perfect answer to this, but maybe each platform could devise their own proprietary form of ID that linked people to an address or something else that can be used to hold people accountable.
A slippery road
There are of course downsides to introducing such a system to social media platforms. For one, freedom of access to information is a basic human right, and introducing such a system might impede on an indidual's ability to access information. The internet was built on the foundation of sharing information, so locking that information away for some goes against why the internet was created.
It's a slippery road, as one major change could pave the way for further cuts and restrictions across the internet. Any major changes to the way we manage social media platforms would need to be measured. There are examples of what a closed down and monitored internet look like, as the Chinese government closely monitors and restricts what it citizens can and cannot look at.
In 2011, the US government tried to introduce the Stop Online Piracy Act, which was aimed at reducing online piracy. The act would have enabled the government to shut down websites for minor copyright infringements. Unsurprisingly, the bill was staunchly opposed by the public. The internet is a huge thing, but small changes can have wide reaching effects. Finding the balance is no easy task, but it's also time to consider accountability.
Ultimately, it may be time to introduce accountability in some form on social media. That starts with us holding Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accountable for the way each one handles abuse on their platforms. As it stands, none of the platforms are doing enough to prevent racism, and instead rely on reactive behaviors.
A petition created earlier this year looked to implement an ID system for social media. It made it through to the Commons, although the government shot the idea down in favour of its Online Safety Legislation (OSL). The OSL would place responsibility for service providers to carry out a number of duties to minimise harmful or abusive materials on the internet. The only problem is that the legislation seems primarily aimed towards search engines and sites that host offensive content, rather than social media platforms.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer. However, the events of the last forty-eight hours show it’s time to reconsider how we interact with social media. It’s also time to hold Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to a better standard when it comes to racism.