In light of the online racist abuse faced by English footballers and the ensuing search for the identity of the offenders, a petition has gone viral calling for changes in the way we identify ourselves online.
It gained traction this week when online accountability was at the forefront of public discourse, and at the time of writing has acquired over 682,000 signatures.
It calls on the government to make it a legal requirement to provide a verified form of ID when opening a new social media account. In a world where we are increasingly living our lives via the internet, it makes sense that it should be easier for those who send online abuse to be identified and held accountable.
But the issue is more nuanced than you might think.
The complications raised by online verification are similar to those regarding voter ID and could lead to the disenfranchisement of many. In the UK, 2% of people don’t have any form of ID, 4% don’t have recognisable photo ID and 9% don’t have in-date and recognisable ID – meaning if photo ID becomes a prerequisite for having a social media account, millions would not qualify.
Many activists took to Twitter to protest the proposals made by the petition, and while they recognised that it was well-intended, they pointed out its flaws and generally dismissed the notion.
The truth is, many of us know the identity of people who have made derogatory comments, or displayed racist biases or prejudice. We don’t need government ID to know who they are
While I can see their point, I’d hate to think that this will become another cause that gets lost in the binary debates of one-upmanship that often take place on social platforms; there must be a middle ground.
Government-issued photo ID is a far cry from registering an email address – which is the only current requirement – but surely there are other ways in which a person can be traced, should they commit a crime online.
If a person commits a crime in the physical world, their identification or arrest is not dependent on them carrying a form of official ID. They are recognised by other means – their image, their fingerprint, or even their DNA.
I’m not suggesting we hand over a test tube of spit to set up an Instagram profile, but if there was a way in which we could attach our online persona to something that is unique to us – and doesn’t require the expense or red tape of government ID – then we could be getting closer to online accountability.
Perhaps social media sites could use a photo that has been verified by a colleague, a carer, a teacher or friend, someone who could be contacted in the event of any wrongdoing as a witness – much like in instances of verbal abuse in real life.
Much as I’m loathto differentiate between verbal and online abuse – the damage is just as impactful – the key variance is the culprit’s ability to hide who they are. Third-party verification is not a new concept in the realm of online activity, and could solve the problem of disenfranchising those without official ID.
What it doesn’t solve, however, is how to safeguard those who use pseudonymised accounts for whistle-blowing, journalist’s sources or other purposes that require anonymity to protect their personal safety.
I know many people share highly personal experiences of mental health issues, sexual abuse or domestic violence, on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram because anonymity currently permitted by those sites allows them to do so without fear of repercussion.
Are white people willing to address our own biases and our own problematic behaviour
Perhaps there is a compromise to be found in granting users public anonymity, with criminal accountability. By that, I mean allowing people to use different names online, but if they are seen to be acting in an abusive manner, or commit a crime online, it’s not impossible for them to be identified by relevant parties.
Globally, however, this could present an additional issue for LGBT+individuals who live in countries where it’s illegal to express their sexual or gender identity and for whom the internet is a safe haven where they can be their true selves without dire consequences.
While our prime minister has called on social media companies to ‘up their game’ over racist tweets published on their sites, one must question the moral authority of a man whose own behaviour has caused more racial division in the UK than an anonymous tweet ever could.
Figures show that Islamophobic incidents rose 375% after Boris Johnson compared Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’, and his initial refusal to condemn the booing of the taking of the knee undoubtedly emboldened those who wished to vocalise their racism during the Euros games.
The truth is, many of us know the identity of people who have made derogatory comments, or displayed racist biases or prejudice. We don’t need government ID to know who they are, some are in our government, others are within our own families… but are we willing to step up and call out their words and actions when we see it, even if it’s detrimental to our relationships with them or the way in which we are perceived by others?
Are white people willing to address our own biases and our own problematic behaviour? Or do we just want to make it easier to report a racist tweet so we don’t have to look at the ways in which comments have gone unchallenged in our ‘real’ lives?
An entire nation was outraged over the racism Marcus Rashford received.But what if the target hadn’t been someone famous? What if the victim hadn’t played for England, or campaigned to feed our poorest children? Would the white population have felt the same indignance? Would the police have acted so quickly?
However we seek to identify and sanction those who commit racist abuse online, we will not solve societal racism until we acknowledge its pervasive existence. Focusing the blame on a few bad apples leaves us in a state of denial over how they came to be so rotten, and the ways in which we ourselves may have enabled their decomposition.
There’s no one-size-fits-all remedy to the issue of online anonymity, but I’m glad the debate is being had nonetheless. The fact that over half a million people have signed the petition, and it has gained the attention of the press and the government, shows online democracy in action.
I just hope that very thing doesn’t suffer as a result of any legislative change, and that we recognise that even if racist language is removed from social media, that doesn’t mean racist attitudes have been removed from society.
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