from the not-this dept
There’s an idea that pops up every so often among people who are upset about misinformation online but don’t actually understand the realities of online communities and the dynamics of how it all works: it’s the idea that “anonymity” is the root cause of many of the internet’s problems. We’ve spent years debunking this, though it’s been nearly a decade since there was a previous focus on this issue — and it’s now coming back.
Unfortunately, part of the reason it’s coming back is because a friend of Techdirt, Andy Kessler (who we’ve even published on Techdirt), wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal calling for the end of anonymity online. I will note, that a large part of the article is correct: the part that accurately notes that Section 230 is not the problem and reforming or repealing it will do a lot more harm than good. That is exactly right.
But then Andy goes off the rails and decides that getting rid of anonymity is the real solution.
He’s wrong, and we’ll get into why in a moment. But, tragically, his piece has picked up some supporters in high places. Senator Ron Johnson, one of the key enablers of spreading disinformation in Congress (under his own name, of course), tweeted a link to the article, saying that perhaps we should end anonymity online:
I’m concerned that Congress’s involvement in Section 230 reform may lead to more harm than good.
One solution may be to end user anonymity on social media platforms. Social media companies need to know who their customers are so bad actors can be held accountable.
The next day, Senator John Kennedy, another famed Senatorial spreader of disinformation under his own name, announced that he was going to introduce legislation to ban anonymity online. Specifically, he said social media companies would have to verify the legal identities of every user, and said that this would “cause a lot of people” to “think about their words.”
There are three big problems with this idea:
- It’s unconstitutional.
- It doesn’t work.
- It creates real harms & puts marginalized and vulnerable people at risk.
Beyond those three things, it’s a lovely idea. Did I say lovely? I meant short-sighted and half-baked.
Let’s go through it bit by bit.
Basically, throughout the 20th century, there were a series of cases that reached the Supreme Court on the question of anonymity and whether or not the government could force the revealing of names. The most notable was McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission in 1995, where the Supreme Court was pretty explicit:
Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority…. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation–and their ideas from suppression–at the hand of an intolerant society. The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse.
Some people might argue that “this is different” thanks to social media, but the details of the McIntyre case suggest that is very much in line with what is happening today. Some may argue that since we’re often talking about speech trying to influence an election, it is different. Or what about to stop fraud? Or defamation? Literally all of that is covered in the McIntyre ruling:
The state interest in preventing fraud and libel stands on a different footing. We agree with Ohio’s submission that this interest carries special weight during election campaigns when false statements, if credited, may have serious adverse consequences for the public at large. Ohio does not, however, rely solely on §3599.09(A) to protect that interest. Its Election Code includes detailed and specific prohibitions against making or disseminating false statements during political campaigns. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §§3599.09.1(B), 3599.09.2(B) (1988). These regulations apply both to candidate elections and to issue driven ballot measures…. Thus, Ohio’s prohibition of anonymous leaflets plainly is not its principal weapon against fraud…. Rather, it serves as an aid to enforcement of the specific prohibitions and as a deterrent to the making of false statements by unscrupulous prevaricators. Although these ancillary benefits are assuredly legitimate, we are not persuaded that they justify §3599.09(A)’s extremely broad prohibition.
As this case demonstrates, the prohibition encompasses documents that are not even arguably false or misleading. It applies not only to the activities of candidates and their organized supporters, but also to individuals acting independently and using only their own modest resources. It applies not only to elections of public officers, but also to ballot issues that present neither a substantial risk of libel nor any potential appearance of corrupt advantage. It applies not only to leaflets distributed on the eve of an election, when the opportunity for reply is limited, but also to those distributed months in advance. It applies no matter what the character or strength of the author’s interest in anonymity. Moreover, as this case also demonstrates, the absence of the author’s name on a document does not necessarily protect either that person or a distributor of a forbidden document from being held responsible for compliance with the election code. Nor has the State explained why it can more easily enforce the direct bans on disseminating false documents against anonymous authors and distributors than against wrongdoers who might use false names and addresses in an attempt to avoid detection. We recognize that a State’s enforcement interest might justify a more limited identification requirement, but Ohio has shown scant cause for inhibiting the leafletting at issue here.
Basically all of that would apply to social media as well.
Kessler’s WSJ piece suggests that this would be no different than Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements in the financial industry, but that is quite different. That is an explicit rule developed for determining fraud. It is easily distinguishable from what is being demanded here on two key points. First, social media involves tons of 1st Amendment protected speech, so any law attacking anonymity there would require strict scrutiny to make sure that it was narrowly targeted and the only effective way to meet a specific goal (which it is not). Separately, the goal of having a KYC setup for social media is not to stop fraud. As Kennedy himself said (revealing its unconstitutional purpose), it would be to make people “think about their words.”
It doesn’t work.
Proof? Facebook already requires real names.
I really shouldn’t need much more than that, but just to humor you: back in 2016 we wrote about a huge study involving half a million comments online and found that trolls tended to be even worse when using their real names.
Results show that in the context of online firestorms, non-anonymous individuals are more aggressive compared to anonymous individuals. This effect is reinforced if selective incentives are present and if aggressors are intrinsically motivated.
This is not to say all people using their real names are overly aggressive. Or that all anonymous users are lovely. But the idea that anonymity is the problem is just… not supported by the facts.
And, just to point out something important: the storming of the Capitol was pushed for by a ton of people using their real names. They didn’t do it thinking they were anonymous.
It creates real harms & puts marginalized and vulnerable people at risk.
Back in 2011 we had a post talking about the damage that can be done by requiring people to identify themselves on social media. It included a list from another site of reasons people gave for wanting to use pseudonyms, and you’ll realize there are some really good ones. The original link is now gone, but I’ll repeat them here:
- I am a high school teacher, privacy is of the utmost importance.
- I publish under my nom de plume, it’s printed on my business cards, and all of the thousands of people I know through my social networks know me by my online name.
- I have used this name/account in a work context, my entire family know this name and my friends know this name. It enables me to participate online without being subject to harassment that at one point in time lead to my employer having to change their number so that calls could get through.
- I do not feel safe using my real name online as I have had people track me down from my online presence and had coworkers invade my private life.
- I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor.
- I work for a private club. I have to carry a card around which states I will not share any element of the club with any sort of media. So, If I want to talk about work (and I do) on the net, I have to use an alias.
- I’ve been using this name for over 10 years in the “hacking” community. There are a nontrivial amount of people who know me *only* by that name.
- As a former victim of stalking that impacted my family I’ve used [my nickname] online for about 7 years.
- Under [this name] I am active in a number of areas of sexual difference for which it would not be wise for me to use my flesh legal name.
- My actual real name is utterly non-identifying, as 1) it is the name of a character in a movie, and that overwhelms google search results 2) it’s not unique at ALL.
- [this name] is a pseudonym I use to protect myself. My web site can be rather controversial and it has been used against me once.
- I started using [this name] to have at least a little layer of anonymity between me and people who act inappropriately/criminally. I think the “real names” policy hurts women in particular.
- I use the pseudonym to maintain my online anonymity because I am polyamorous and have no desire for professional acquaintances to discover this.
- I enjoy being part of a global and open conversation, but I don’t wish for my opinions to offend conservative and religious people I know or am related to. Also I don’t want my husband’s Govt career impacted by his opinionated wife, or for his staff to feel in any way uncomfortable because of my views.
- I have privacy concerns for being stalked in the past. I’m not going to change my name for [social media]. The price I might pay isn’t worth it.
- We get death threats at the blog, so while I’m not all that concerned with, you know, sane people finding me. I just don’t overly share information and use a pen name.
- This identity was used to protect my real identity as I am gay and my family live in a small village where if it were openly known that their son was gay they would have problems.
- I go by pseudonym for safety reasons. Being female, I am wary of internet harassment.
Such a list can go on and on. As Danah Boyd has written, requiring people give their real names is itself an abuse of power. And, just to back that up, note that the people now calling for it are the powerful.
The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.
Boyd notes that in collecting data on teen use of social media, she found that people of color were significantly more likely to use pseudonyms, while white teens were more likely to use their real names.
And, of course, none of this discusses what a total pain this would be for most sites. We’ve always allowed people to comment anonymously on Techdirt. If we were required to verify every commenter, we’d most likely shut down the comments — which remain such a key part of the site here. It’s also where we learn so much, often from anonymous or pseudonymous commenters. I have no idea the identity of nearly all of our best commenters, and I don’t want or need to know.
So, please, can we dump this silly idea? Anonymity doesn’t solve the problems you think it would, and it would put people at risk.
Filed Under: anonymity, john kennedy, ron johnson, social media, trolling