Recently, I’ve seen a lot of people sharing a petition around which aims to make it mandatory for people using any kind of social media to submit some kind of ID. Otherwise, they’d presumably either not be allowed to make a account, or would be kicked off if they already have one. The thought process behind this is that it will mean that anonymous internet bullies will now be held accountable if their behaviour veers into criminal territory. For example, people discussing planned terrorist attacks, people inciting racial hatred, people releasing others’ personal information, people relentlessly harassing individuals, people using accounts to groom children/teenagers and so on. There are a lot of disgusting things that people do when they have an anonymous social media account.
However, is making it mandatory to submit ID really the best way to go? Would anyone be able to go onto your account and see who you are? The petition doesn’t really make this clear, but let’s imagine for the sake of argument that it would be like this. Here are a few scenarios to consider: someone is in a really violent relationship and uses social media to anonymously vent about the partner they are unable to leave – with mandatory ID, the information about who they are could get back to the violent partner and endanger their life. Imagine someone who is non-heterosexual lives with highly religious parents who would toss them onto the streets if they knew about their sexuality – maybe they go online to connect with the broader LGBT community in a way their abusive parents cannot monitor, but with mandatory ID, it might get back to them and they could end up homeless. Imagine somebody who’s stuck in a job that they hate and in which they are routinely abused by their employer – it may be therapeutic for them to complain about it discreetly online, but with mandatory ID, they could end up losing their job. The introduction of mandatory ID for social media would then create problems for thousands of people in situations like this.
But what if the ID is submitted to the platform and not publicly visible and then it only comes up if the user does anything criminal? Does that solve the problem? Well, I don’t think so. If you are under 18, the petition says that you should use your parents ID, so the LGBT kids living with abusive religious parents (as mentioned above) would then need to ask their parents for the ID and make them aware of their account, or just lose the friends and community they’ve cultivated. Also, not everyone has a form of ID: poor people who don’t drive or have a passport would have to submit a birth certificate, if they have access to it, or otherwise lose access to one of the biggest communication platforms in our society. Also, thinking long term, what if you had submitted your form of ID to social media and then the law changed for the worst – all of a sudden, public criticism of the government is illegal and the ID attached to your account can be easily silenced. I’m not saying that this is something that’s going to happen any time soon, but if you have a precedent for mandatory ID on social media, this is a problem that could arise further down the line.
So as much as I completely agree that there are awful things done over social media and the people who are doing them need to be held accountable, I also think that it poses too much of a risk to the vulnerable people who are already using the platform and so I think that there needs to be a different approach to solving this problem.