When Marcus Rashford spoke out about the racist abuse he and other Premier League footballers received from anonymous social media accounts, he likely didn’t intend to start a conversation about who and what the internet is for.
But politicians were conscious that they had been slow to act when Rashford previously raised concerns about a societal issue – children going hungry – and this time they acted quickly. Specifically: some called for social networks to ban people who didn’t use their real names online – the thinking seemingly being that, by removing their ability to hide, racists would, well, stop being racist.
The UK’s first dedicated police officer looking at hate crime in football, PC Stuart Ward, has even joined the call for social media users to hand over their passports before they’re given the keys to TikTok, Twitter and Facebook. But would it make the slightest bit of difference?
“There’s this myth that by preventing people from being anonymous online, suddenly we’re going to see online abuse, violence and racism disappear,” says Dr Francesca Sobande, a digital media studies lecturer at Cardiff University. “That’s just not the case.”
Racists are racist, clearly, whether they attach their names to their missives or not. And to be clear: when we say “anonymous”, we’re taking that to include “pseudonymous”. Abusive trolls are just as (if not more) likely to hide behind fake names than no name.
“There will always be people who are more likely to say or do things offensively online, partly because they have the opportunity to say or do things anonymously,” continues Dr Sobande. “But racism and oppression predate the internet and social media – people have been doing and saying oppressive things for centuries. [Also,] there are so many people doing and saying things under their real names.”
Indeed, by pinpointing anonymity as the source of the issue, politicians run the risk of overlooking the issue itself: we live in a racist world. And we risk doing more harm than good. By demanding people use their real names online to create a space unwelcoming to racists, in fact we make a space that can also be more unwelcoming to the people they attack.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Dr Nazanin Andalibi, assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan. She’s studied the benefits and drawbacks of being anonymous online. “There are people who might use anonymity to harm others, and that’s where the argument against anonymity on social media platforms comes. But I think there are real benefits to having anonymity as an option on the internet that are too big to ignore.”
Plenty of people on the internet use anonymity to protect themselves from abusive partners, to draw a line between their online lives and offline lives, or to just be themselves when offline society won’t allow them to. Sex workers – of which there are an increasing number, as the pandemic-spurred economic recession begins to bite – often use fake names to separate their stigmatised online work from their offline, “ordinary” lives.
“There are so many different reasons people may want to make use of anonymity online – for example, to speak truth to power, [or] to experience elements of digital culture they might not otherwise,” says Sobande.
By taking away that right, platforms and politicians could trample on free expression and vibrant subcommunities that need a voice. And in any case, anonymity isn’t always guaranteed, says Savvas Zannettou, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken, Germany. He and colleagues discovered that an analysis of Twitter metadata can identify users with 96.7% accuracy, even if people don’t use their real names.
“If someone does something very bad like sharing images of child abuse, the network operators [already] know lots of data about the account,” says Zannettou. “They know where he’s joining from, his IP, all this kind of stuff. They can assist law enforcement to identify and find this person.”
And that’s the point: we’re already hugely surveilled. It’s what worries Dr Andalibi the most about the potential of an online world where we’re asked to give up our real names in order to take part.
“We are already surveilled. I think having our real-world identities attached to every single thing we do online, and be visible to everyone, is a violation of basic rights that I would like to believe we can protect.”
It’s also likely to turn the Marcus Rashfords of tomorrow – not the millionaire activist footballer he is now but the kid he was, growing up in a working-class household, the son of a single mother who avoided meals so her children could eat – away from social networks.
“It would have negative implications for the diversity of the types of voices and content that people see online,” concludes Dr Andalibi. “People just won’t feel safe enough to participate.”