Online racial abuses in the UK prompt calls to end anonymity online

English football players Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho were the targets of racial abuses on social media following the Euro 2020 final. [Shutterstock]

The thousands of anonymous social media accounts that attacked English football players with racist slurs following the European Championship final prompted discussions on how to end anonymity online.

Following the Euro 2020 final on Sunday (11 July) the three black England footballers who missed penalty kicks faced a flood of online racial abuse. The abuse mostly came from anonymous social media accounts, which prompted an inflammatory debate on ending anonymity online.

According to a YouGov survey, 78% of British people are in favour of requesting the users to disclose their real identity when signing up on social media. The same survey also estimates that 37% of Britons think the real identity should be publicly available on the user’s profile.

The debate around anonymity online is longstanding in the UK. Before the Euro final, a petition calling for making ID requirements mandatory for opening a social media account reached almost 700,000 signatures.

“The government recognises concerns linked to anonymity online, which can sometimes be exploited by bad actors seeking to engage in harmful activity. However, restricting all users’ right to anonymity, by introducing compulsory user verification for social media, could disproportionately impact users who rely on anonymity to protect their identity,” was the official UK government response to the petition.

Online accountability

Those arguing for social media verification stress that it is relatively easy to maintain anonymity online in the current legal framework. Boris Johnson’s government is working on an Online Harms Bill to introduce obligations on the removal of illegal content. Similar provisions are included in the Digital Services Act (DSA), a legislative proposal intended to make illegal online what is illegal offline.

For Christel Schaldemose, the MEP responsible for the DSA, the racist abuse was ‘horrendous’, but she did not consider that ending anonymity online was the right approach.

“Citizens should have the right to assume a different identity on the internet, due to for instance security reasons. We must be careful not to undermine freedom of speech, but more should be done to tackle illegal hate speech,” Schaldemose said.

Josephine Ballon, head of legal at HateAid agrees that “user’s identity should not be publicly available”, but she notes that “full unconditional anonymity on the internet is also not an answer, because of various crimes, very often severe, committed online. In most situations, the law enforcement agencies have very few options to identify perpetrators, which is why most of the cases need to be dismissed.”

Privacy concerns

The advocates of social media verification do not necessarily think the user’s real name should be readily available, but rather that social media should be able to readily identify those that break the law. There are, however, those that argue this solution would give online platforms additional personal information, exposing users to further data breaches.

In April, Facebook came under fire following the revelations that the personal information such as phone numbers and email addresses of 533 million users had been leaked in 2019. The social network never notified the users concerned by the data breach.

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Identity verification company Onfido argues that there is a way to introduce digital verification without compromising users’ privacy. “This could be as simple as simply requesting a photo of some form of physical ID and a selfie. These need not be stored after the verification check is complete, merely processed – and then deleted, said Yuelin Li, Vice President for Strategy at Onfido.

Identity providers such as Onfido would therefore be in charge of processing the personal data, ensuring its security and that it is not reused for non-intended purposes.

Recommending extremism

Opponents of ID verification also point to another culprit for racial abuses online; the fact they are fuelled by algorithms that tend to automatically promote controversial content. Earlier this month, YouTube was singled out for fuelling the spread of harmful content.

YouTube’s algorithm fuelling harmful content, study says

A crowdsourced investigation has accused YouTube’s recommendation algorithms of fuelling harmful content. France and Germany were found to be particularly affected, along with other non-English speaking countries.

Schaldemose stressed that “more should be done to remove and downgrade this kind of content.” Online platforms, say they have taken swift action to contain racial abuse.

“In the 24 hours after the EUROs final, we swiftly removed over 1000 Tweets and permanently suspended a number of accounts for violating our rules, through a combination of machine learning-based automation and human review. The vast majority of this content was detected proactively by our teams, using technology,” a Twitter spokesperson told EURACTIV.

Similarly, Facebook also said they were continuing to remove abusive comments, while also coordinating with law enforcement authorities to hold the relevant people accountable.

“Only shutting these profiles down is not helpful if you can set up a new profile with random data in a second and continue to spread hatred,” Ballon added.

In addressing the accusation that automated suggestions would be instrumental to promoting extremist content, Former UK Deputy Prime Minister and now Facebook VP of Global Affairs Nick Clegg stressed that ‘it takes two to tango’, comparing the user data to ingredients on which the algorithms’ ‘recipe’ is based.

Li suggests giving the users the choice to see the posts and receive messages from users that decided to remain anonymous. For the Onfido VP, “this will reduce the impact and virality of some of the most aggressive anonymous accounts.”

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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