A lot has been made of online abuse and the need for social media companies to better monitor and police their platforms. A lot has also been made of the potential need to legislate in relation to online abuse, but how easy, or not, would this be to achieve?
One of the big challenges is the internet itself and its distributed design. It is designed such that no one user, company or even country has control. It represents a single solution which crosses the national boundaries of most if not all countries in the world giving everyone the potential to use and impact on the internet. This represents a particular challenge when looking at legislation. A government might say that all platforms accessible in their country must abide by their legislation but what teeth do they have to enforce this when the company is based in another country. And how do you stop users simply using tools such as VPNs to bypass local restrictions; Just one look online at forums related to expats living in countries with significant national filtering in place will highlight discussions of VPNs and other tools which can be used to bypass restrictions and the relevant legislation the restrictions are employed to enforce. Or do a little digging into the ongoing piracy of video content and you will see this is a continuing problem despite efforts over a number of years to stem this issue.
If policing was to be properly established governments would need to be able to identify the users in country, their online identities, plus their online activities. This has issues in relation to privacy and the safety of whistle-blowers and activists which I will cover shortly, however also represents a cyber security risk. Such a database would be an enticing target for cyber criminals as a source of information which could be used for identity fraud and common fraud, but also in terms of blackmail or even attempts at coercion or subtle behaviour modification. And we have already seen national identity databases in other countries fall foul of data breaches.
There is a genuine need for anonymity, where anonymity is often cited as one of the reasons for online abuse being so common online. Activist and whistle-blowers rely on anonymity for their own personal safety. Government dissidents in countries with authoritarian governments need anonymity. There is also the concern that once a database of online user identities, tied to real world identities, plus online activity is created, albeit for good reasons, that it might not be used for less ethical or moral purposes in the future, or that its use might have inappropriate but unintentional consequences. And this is before we consider the technical possibility of removing anonymity in the first place, something which given the internets design is fraught with difficulties including easy ways for users to bypass restrictions.
In relation to anonymity, although this feels like a key factor in online abuse, in my experience a large amount of the abuse is actually committed from users principal online accounts, those most likely to be identifiable back to a real life person. The abuse either occurs as a result of joining a crowd, of being or feeling empowered by others to be abusive or of simply going too far spurred on by the ease and apparent lack of immediate consequence when using social media. As such, maybe the issue of anonymity is a bit of a red herring.
I continue to see a lot of what occurs on social media as an amplification of the real world and society. It is just that this amplification is that bit starker in its display of the ugliness which can occur in society. I will however counterbalance this to some extent with how social media sometimes presents the very best we as a race have to offer. I suspect a key reason for this amplification is that social media removes some of the risk factors and adds ease. It is easy to be abusive to someone online especially when you know they arent likely to punch you in the face as they might do in real life. It is also easy to be supportive, helpful and vulnerable away from the potential of embarrassment which may occur face to face. It is however worth noting how very far we have come as a society compared with 100yrs or even 10 or 20yrs ago. It is just that social media continues to amplify the small minority who have not progressed to same extent.
So, what are we to do about this?
I don’t have an answer other than to suggest we need to be aware of the amplification, be aware of others feelings, views, etc and be generally nicer to one another. And I know that sounds a little soft and wishy-washy but I am not sure what more I can suggest. Sadly, we also need to accept that the abuse emanating from the minority will likely continue, and we need to continue to take the little steps we can in challenging and sanctioning such individuals. This will likely need to continue as little steps, one abusive user or group at a time; A leap to ban anonymity or heavily legislate social media is unlikely to be successful.