ID, or no ID: that is the question
Like so many issues facing us when it comes to online interactions, this is an utterly nuanced conversation. Yes, online verification is important for protecting real people from bots, scams, and impersonators. Yes, anonymity is also crucial for vulnerable people, or people who are very privacy-minded. No, it’s not necessarily in social media conglomerates’ best interest to police the content on their platforms. No, that doesn’t mean they should be above retribution when it comes to extremist, hateful, violent-inducing content that has very real-life consequences for their users.
At Self, we believe that trust is key to every interaction online, but it’s also the thing all of us are most sorely lacking at the moment. We believe that users of social media should ALL be verified, but that verification shouldn’t necessitate that your online presence match that of the ID provided at verification. We believe users should not be able to create multiple accounts behind which to hide, and that platforms should be firm in their sanctions of blocking bots and banning people who disregard the community standards of the platform. They need to ensure that the sanctions they use actually work, and truly protect the users’ best interest, and to ensure the offenders are banned and stay banned. But social media platforms should not have to be the police, and law enforcement should be responsible for dealing with cyber criminals within the justice system – when people spout racist, violent rhetoric online, they should be dealt in the same way as those who commit hate crimes.
Still, there are many complications, and the trouble is that we’re endeavoring to solve a problem that doesn’t stop and won’t go away long enough for platforms to catch a breath and find lasting solutions. Twitter recently relaunched its public verification program, only for many real users to find they’d been denied, and for at least 6 bot accounts to succeed, despite being very clearly phoney. Scammers on both Twitter and Instagram cheat people out of hundreds (sometimes thousands!) of pounds after promising them verification that never materialises. As scams of all types have grown exponentially in the past year, there can be no doubt that these verification scams will only continue to rise, too.
Is the solution that every user be required to submit a photo ID at registration? Not quite. Verification is essential, and the onus lies on the individual platforms to determine how best to manage this verification, but it should never be at the risk of exposing someone vulnerable. Can users trust that the platforms will protect their verified identities in escrow? Without any verification, will people continue to abuse the capacity to create an endless stream of online identities from which they can attack or take advantage of others?
Though it seems it’s been said many times before, it’s clearer than ever: social media needs major changes, and it needs them now.