Anonymous social media users are more likely to behave badly towards each other.
Clean up the internet is an independent, UK-based organisation concerned about the degradation in online discourse and its implications for democracy. We campaign for evidence-based action to increase civility and respect online, to safeguard freedom of expression, and to reduce online bullying, trolling, intimidation, and misinformation.
Our first campaign is to tackle abuse of anonymity on social media platforms. Anonymity can be a force for good. But at the moment it is being abused by trolls and bullies, and to spread misinformation.
We've conducted research into the ways anonymity is currently misused, and how this encourages abuse and trolling and fuels the spread of dangerous misinformation. We've identified practical steps which social media companies could take to prevent such abuse of anonymity, whilst safeguarding legitimate uses such as whistle-blowing and protecting freedom of expression. If the companies don't act voluntarily, we think the UK government's new Online Safety Bill should make them.
Three of our key recommendations
1. Give social media users the option to verify their identity
Every social media user should be given the option of a robust, secure means of verifying that the identity they are using on social media is authentic.
Users who wish to continue unverified should be free to continue to do so.
2. Make it easy for everyone to see whether or not a user is verified
The verification status of an individual user should be clearly visible to all other users.
Each user should be able to bring their own judgement as to what verification status might say about the credibility and reliability of another user's content.
3. Give users the option to filter out interaction with unverified users
Some users will be happy to hear from, and interact with, unverifed users. Others will not. This should be a matter of individual user choice.
Every social media user should be able to block or limit
communication, comments, and other interaction from unverified users as a category.
Why Clean up the Internet?
The UK has a serious problem with how conversations take place online. Bullying, harassment, and intimidation are an everyday occurrence. Debates get derailed by abuse and misinformation. Many people feel uneasy about the way online conversations so often take a nasty turn, whilst others feel unable to take part at all. British democracy is being damaged by this toxic culture.
Clean Up the Internet wants to change this. We want an internet where everyone can explore, discuss, and debate the issues they care about, without being subjected to abuse or confused by fake news. We want websites and social media networks to make life harder for trolls and bullies. Where tech companies are too slow to act, we want the government to force them.
Clean Up the Internet's current priority is to call for a different approach to managing anonymity and identity concealment. At present a disproportionate amount of harmful or unpleasant online behaviour comes from users who hide their identity, or use a fake identity. Such users are more likely than readily identifiable users to direct abuse at others or spread disinformation. We think its time to rethink the design of large virtual spaces, such as the major social media platforms, to address the harm which misuse of anonymity is currently causing.
What limitations could be placed on the ability of anonymous users to derail debates or harangue other participants? What new options could be offered to users who are using their real names, if they want to reduce their exposure to harmful or unpleasant content from anonymous users? How could sites like Twitter, Facebook, or a newspaper comment page, improve their verification systems? What forms of government regulation will ensure the tech companies take the necessary action, whilst also safeguarding whistle-blowing and freedom of expression?
What others are saying
Damian Collins MP,
"The social media platforms have failed to take adequate steps to address the harm being done by abuse and disinformation. Regulation is clearly needed. Clean Up the Internet have rightly identified that the misuse of anonymity is a key underlying factor, and are making practical, proportionate suggestions for how it could be tackled. I'm pleased to support them."
John Nicolson MP, SNP
“Clean Up The Internet's new research confirms what we've long suspected - anonymity on social media fuels harmful behaviour. If platforms are serious about reducing the amount of vile abuse and dangerous misinformation on their platforms, they need to stop pretending anonymity isn't a problem. Their current approach to anonymity makes life too easy for trolls, bullies, and spreaders of dangerous falsehoods, and the rest of us are paying the price.”
Lord Michael Cashman, Crossbench peer, actor and writer
"Courtesy, good manners and healthy debate are so often missing on social media platforms. The prevalence of disinformation, trolling, harassment and abuse is depressing. Anonymous and inauthentic social media accounts clearly play a huge role in all of this and Clean Up The Internet is offering sensible, proportionate solutions to this problem. It's an excellent initiative which is long overdue, and I'm pleased to support their work."
Stephen Kinnock MP, Labour
"Clean Up The Internet is a much-needed initiative. The lack of regulation for online communication compared to offline is astonishing. Social media and online forums can be very useful tools, but just like in any sector of the economy, politicians need to work with industry leaders to set the standards and regulations which protect consumers and offer a safe and level playing field for all involved. I hope Clean Up the Internet can help to achieve this."
Hannah Bardell MP, SNP
"Social media should be good for democracy. It should mean more voices to be heard and debates are better informed. But sadly at the moment there's far too much abuse and misinformation, and important debates are reduced to shouting matches. This is extremely unpleasant, and puts a lot of people off getting involved in politics. We urgently need evidence-based action to address this situation, and I'm pleased to see Clean Up the Internet launching with a mission of proposing practical solutions. I wish them the best of luck."
Lord David Anderson KBE QC, crossbench peer, and former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation
"Anonymity is the enemy of accountability - yet without it, some vulnerable people would never be heard. To this conundrum, Clean Up The Internet has devised a simple, imaginative and workable solution. It would help to de-toxify the online environment and I am glad to support it."
Siobhan Baillie MP,
"The government is taking welcome steps to start to tackle online harms, but there’s more to do. Clean Up The Internet’s work to highlight the problems associated with misuse of anonymity on social media is an important contribution. If we do not tackle anonymity, the horror, the suicides, the bullying, the racism, the misogyny, the people being put off becoming MPs, will continue unchecked. Clean Up The Internet is demonstrating that workable, proportionate solutions to this problem exist. I’m pleased to be working with them."
Chi Unwurah MP,
"The abuse that politicians and candidates often attract not only prevents the interaction between constituents and MPs, but puts constituents off becoming MPs."
David Davis MP, Conservative
“Studies show that online anonymity encourages sexism both online and offline, fuels online aggression and abuse, increases the promotion of conspiracy theories and drives the proliferation of malicious fake accounts. Clean Up The Internet's proposals to restrict the misuse of anonymity would reduce the fire and fury of the internet and encourage responsibility, without denying or abridging freedom of speech.”
Simon Fell MP, Conservative
“Anonymity can be important for freedom of expression. However at present anonymity wrapped in the flag of free speech is used to share hateful content, to undermine the rights of minority communities, and to assault our democratic values. I do not believe we should ban anonymity, but nor do I believe we can continue to allow it to cause such widespread harm. Clean Up The Internet's proposals demonstrate that it’s possible to address these issues in a balanced way and I'm delighted to support their work."”
Philip Davies MP, Conservative
“It's common sense to most people that anonymity causes problems on social media. Yet, time and again, I see the Social Media Companies skirt round questions on this issue. Clean up the Internet's latest report offers clear evidence of the role played by anonymity in the spread of incredibly dangerous falsehoods about Coronavirus. It's time for the platforms to stop dodging the issue and start offering solutions.”
Baroness Jenny Jones,
“Social media has led to an amazing transformation in people's ability to self-organise, share ideas and information. However, we need to recognise how different platforms encourage argument and division as part of their business model and how this can be exploited by dark money or even foreign powers to manipulate truth and people's feelings. Authentication has to be done without providing the tech companies a new data-set to sell, but if this proposal helps us as individuals to identify and avoid abusive fake accounts, and question sources or motives, without damaging the ability of people who require anonymity for legitimate reasons, then it will be progress."”
Jamie Stone MP, Lib Dem
"As a strong supporter of free speech, I believe we need to improve social media platforms' approach to anonymity and user verification. The current "anything goes" approach enables too much abuse and deception, silencing vulnerable users and distorting democratic debate. Clean Up The Internet are proposing sensible changes which would prevent anonymity being misused to harm and deceive other users, whilst protecting its legitimate uses. I'm delighted to support their work."