Using Real Names On Social Networks And Its Consequences

14-09-2020

I wrote this essay for the course of Computer Ethics. Maybe someone on the internet may appreciate it...

Converted from LaTeX using latex2html.

Abstract

This paper wants to criticize a series of recent proposals to enforce social networks platforms to associate every account to a real person, in a public verifiable way. The possible outcomes, especially on younger users, could be catastrophic: the lack of experience in using social networks may create reputation-harmful situations forever linked to the individual, affecting also future work possibilities. While being tempting, anonymity-restricting solutions should be seen as a last resort to tackle problems concerning social networks.

Introduction

To fight problems like fake news and hate-speech, social networks and political parties are trying to force users of such platforms to use their real names for their accounts. In this paper I will try to explain why this idea can be dangerous and what are the possible effects on users, especially on the younger ones. I think the problem is relevant because, while it might seem not probable, such a restriction could harm a lot of individuals both in the short and long term. Younger users, given that they may lack the experience and education necessary to use social networks in a responsible way, are the more threatened category in this context. To support my claim I will start by explaining in details some terms, like social networks and anonymity, then I will analyze in depth what are the index characteristics of the mentioned proposal. This is necessary to foresee the unwanted effects that may happen if that enforcement would become real. I will then propose some ideas about why the possibility to stay online in anonymity is fundamental for an adolescent, introducing other philosophical works in support of my thesis.

The paper is organized as follows. Section II and III describes precisely the concepts of Social Networks Sites, Anonymity, and Pseudonymity. Section IV highlights the index characteristics of the aforementioned proposal. In Section V criticisms about the norm and hints for a more reasoned solution will be exposed, while conclusions are finally drawn in Section VI.

Social Networks: Good or Evil?

Social Networks Sites (SNS) are online platforms which help people stay in touch with peers, interact with distant people, but also getting informed about the last events or simply share passions with others [Ortiz-Ospina, 2019]. The positive aspect of this phenomenon is that many individuals, which did not use Internet before, started doing so. They started to share and listen opinions, to explore different cultures and to debate on various issues. Maybe, in the end, SNS created a more responsible and democratic society. However, it's not all good. The biggest platforms like Facebook and Twitter have had to deal with a problem called hate-speech, which is defined by Cohen-Almagor as "bias-motivated, hostile, malicious speech aimed at a person or a group of people because of some of their actual or perceived innate characteristics. It expresses discriminatory, intimidating, disapproving, antagonistic, and/or prejudicial attitudes toward those characteristics, which include gender, race, religion, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation" [Cohen-Almagor, 2011, p. 3]. Basically, it consists in people - usually grouped together - who express their hate against other people, mostly because of their origin or their sexual preferences. Hate-speech existed way before SNS were invented; however, they created an environment which made far more easy its spread. Another problem is the one related to fake news. Fake news can be defined as "[...] fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent" [Lazer et al., 2018, p. 1094]. Essentially, they are articles which look trustworthy, while instead they contain false information. Again, SNS have contributed to the spread of fake news; it's noteworthy that, in many cases, this has been done intentionally and using social bots, which are software-controlled profiles or pages used to systematically spread fake news for various reasons, usually political ones (i.e. influencing election results) [Shao et al., 2017]. As we will see in Section IV, these problems have been associated with anonymity. Why? Before continuing, let's introduce what anonymity really is.

Anonymity

The common meaning for the word "anonymity", which is used in everyday language, is related to the absence of a name; so, we could say that anonymity is the possibility for an individual to behave and perform actions without exposing their name [Walter, 2008]. This definition, however, could be too restrictive: the concept of namelessness may not capture all the aspects involved in anonymity, especially if the sphere of action is the one of Information Technology. Let's extend anonymity to the possibility of acting while reindexing out of reach; this means, being able to act, talk, expose opinions, experiment, knowing that no one will be able to connect the author's identity with such actions. [Nissenbaum, 1999]. There are various reasons for which an individual would prefer to reindex unreachable - so, anonymous. In many everyday situations anonymity is an accepted social norm: buying products in a shop usually does not require the consumer to expose their name. In free elections anonymity is guaranteed by law. In general, a person may want to avoid consequences of an action, being them positive (acknowledgments for charity) or negative (legal consequences of a crime).

From now on in this work, anonymity will be used in the sense of unreachability: in fact, Nissenbaum also states that in the Information Technology era being nameless is not sufficient anymore to be anonymous. This is because every action performed online will leave many traces which can be used to link actions to authors, even if a name or an identifier were not given.

Let's introduce another form of anonymity: pseudonymity. It can be defined as the use of pseudonyms as identifiers [Pfitzmann and Hansen, 2010]. The difference between anonymity and pseudonymity is that in the first case actions could not be connected to the author's identity, but moreover two actions cannot be connected to the same author. Every action performed in an anonymity situation could be connected virtually to everyone. In pseudonymity, however, the author wants their actions to be connected to them, while not revealing their real identity. For example, an individual may want to have a relationship which involves the exchange of messages: an identifier is needed to link the messages to its author. In another case, an artist may want to reclaim the ownership of a work without disclosing her or his real identity.

Let me make a clarification: in this paper I will discuss anonymity with respect to other online peers. This means that we are not interested in being untraceable from internet providers or big companies (this is another ethical problem) or to commit online crimes without being disclosed. We are interested in the possibility to use SNS with a pseudonym and to communicate with other individuals without revealing our name, so that other people we know in real life can't associate our actions online with our true identity.

The proposal

The idea to enforce SNS users to utilize their real first name and surname is quite recent, but there have already been some cases. For example, the famous platform Facebook requires users to use the name they use in everyday life and to provide accurate information [Facebook, 2020], even though only in some cases this norm has been enforced [The Canadian Press, 2016]. In 2011, Google+ was launched and tried to enforce a strong requirement about real names, leading to many bans; after many protests and public debates, the norm was relaxed [Boyd, 2012] but the problem of pseudonymity on SNS gained traction and many concerns and propositions have been presented.

Recently, the Italian political party ItaliaViva presented a collection of signatures to issue a law which requires SNS to enforce the "real name" policy for the registered accounts [ItaliaViva, 2019]. It's important to highlight what precisely would such an enforcement request and what are the possible outcomes. First of all, the motivations for such an act are usually two: one related to the spread of fake news, and the other one related to the spread of hate-speech. Technical details about how the rule will be enforced can vary depending on where the proposal comes from; however, the general idea is that every physical person who wants to create an account on a SNS will have to make a request, attaching a copy of a document, and then wait for the request to be approved. Some variations could apply, for example the person would get immediate read access to the platform but without the possibility to write posts or make comments; in other contexts, the access could be totally denied.

I want to highlight the fact that this approach could require a considerable amount of resources and be, consequently, not realizable. However, for the sake of this paper, an assumption is made: the measure is viable and there are enough resources to make it possible. The index point of this work is indeed analyzing the possible consequences that this measure could produce; it is therefore agnostic from the implementation specifics. To make a quick recap: the proposal requires users to exhibit an ID document in order to get access to any social network; such access could be restricted or denied if the user doesn't follow the procedure. The goals of this measure are to restrict the spread of fake news and to slow down the problem of hate-speech. After having pointed out the details of the idea, it's interesting to analyze the reasons for which this proposal is thought to be effective. For what concerns the fake news problem, the enforcement of real names for every account would make the usage of bots more difficult. We will take this for granted, because this is not the index point of this paper.

I think it's more interesting to discuss about why this proposal may help in tackling hate-speech phenomenon. The first reason for which a potential author of hate-speech could be discouraged from committing such an act is the legal one. In most of the countries in which social networks are present, it's illegal to verbally abuse other peers through the use of posts, comments, images or any other possible media. Moreover, often these acts are against the rules of such platforms so, at the very minimum, the bad user could risk to lose her/his account; but, if it's proven to whom the account belongs, a formal denounce can be done. It should be noted that, as stated in Section III, police may have the resources to link anonymous accounts to the actual owners. However, let's accept that the measure would simplify police's work. The second one is that, even if not legal actions are undertaken, usually people don't want their accounts to be associated with offensive or shameful contents. It sounds reasonable to think that knowing that friends, workmates, employers can and probably will see the contents produced by a certain account, the author will be more responsible and careful in using it. We will discuss it more in depth in Section V.

I think it's important to stress that I am discussing the ethical consequences of the proposal, not its feasibility.

Risks of lack of anonymity

I will now present three reasons for which I think restricting the possibility to anonymity is dangerous. While it's fair to say that nowadays SNS have an important role in everyone's life, I will focus on the youngest users. This is because peer pressure can induce youngsters to enroll on various platforms, having to face the choice to use their real names. Also, the proposal may harm them the most, given that adolescence is a complicated process which have impacts on the rest of one's life.

The psychological effect

The first reason is that using pseudonyms in communicating with others may be beneficial. To confirm this, it has been noted that using pseudonymity online, in particular for activities like forums, chats, can give a space for experimentation in various fields that, otherwise, would not be possible. As stated by Christopherson [Christopherson, 2007], the possibility to express emotions or behaviors that could be considered negative or not acceptable in many fields is important to grow up. This is because this way it is possible for the individual to reason about life from different points of view and, eventually, become a better person. Such fields include but are not restricted to the sexual sphere or the political sphere. For example, an individual who suffers emotional distress because of his or her sexual orientation may feel better after discussing it with other people on a forum; using a pseudonym will let him or her exploit the advantages of unreachability. The consequences, in fact, could be family-related (being disowned or threatened) or politics-related (in a country in which some sexual behaviors are persecuted). This effects have also been observed by Joinson: in his work [Joinson, 2001] the effects of anonymity on computer-mediated communication have been analyzed. The results are that self-disclosure, which is the "act of revealing personal information to others" [Wegner and Vallacher, 1980, p. 183], is strongly eased in computer-mediated communication with respect to face to face communication, and that also anonymity may contribute to this. This is confirmed also by Suler [Suler, 2004]; in particular he suggests that dissociative anonymity, which is a situation in which one's actions online and one's in-person lifestyle and identity are not linked, makes people feel less vulnerable making them more willing to self-disclosure. These works are important for our discussion, because they show that having the possibility to stay online using a pseudonym may help the young users to cope with many problems and doubts typical of the adolescence. Otherwise, many people will prefer not to talk about something that haunts them, and, generally, this is not a good thing. This is also confirmed by the work of Kang et al. [Kang et al., 2013] in which reasons for seeking anonymity online have been investigated: the results show that a significant amount of people choose to be anonymous online because they feel safer, or because they believe they can express their true person. To confirm this last statement, another work [Kang, 1997] suggests that a person will choose words with greater care if they know that their words can be connected to their identity. The result can be self-censorship, which is not always a good outcome.

What I am trying to present in this digression is that, sometimes, being free from other people's critics or just feel at ease in talking with an unknown person who will never be able to get in touch with us again is okay. Anonymity has always been a backbone of Internet and I believe it contributed to its (kind of) democratic nature.

Context-collapse

The second reason, which I think is a very dangerous one, is the problematic phenomenon known as context-collapse. Context-collapse can be defined as the flattening out of multiple distinct audiences in one’s social network, such that people from different contexts become part of a singular group of message recipients [Vitak, 2012]. To simplify, context-collapse happens when all your words can be heard by all your possible recipients: what you say to your partner can be heard by your boss, or what you say to your psychotherapist will be heard by your friends. Goffman's work [Goffman, 1978] has proven that persons behave differently on the basis of the audience, and tend to present a different version of them according to whom is listening. What is at stake here is that SNS, by design, tend to make context-collapse happen. This is a non-natural situation, because in face to face communication the audience is clearly defined and limited both in space and time. Younger users may not have the necessary experience and rationality to manage posts and online contents in every situation. A content suitable for friends may result offensive if seen by a teacher or a boss and lead to negative consequences. This is related to the proposal we are discussing because being forced to use real names on SNS will make context-collapse unavoidable, while having the possibility to create multiple accounts using pseudonyms may help in keeping different audience detached.

Endurance of the data

The third reason to not accept this proposal is that once an information goes online, it's likely that it will be available forever. The Information Technology feature which makes this possible is called reproducibility [Johnson, 2009]. In particular, the possibility to copy and save data with very low effort can be defined as endurance. At the time of producing a content, the naive user may ignore this fact, or simply not take it into consideration before posting something. This is dangerous because opinions, words and facts produced at one specific time may not reflect the author's being in the present. We all have said wrong, offensive or stupid things when we were young; but in an era where SNS were not so present in our lives, people forgot these things. Nowadays this is not true anymore, because SNS contain an overly detailed history of our lives, including the things we prefer not to represent us. This can create problems in the future for the individual, considering that many times the possibility of finding a job is related to the contents posted online [Wortham, 2009,Black and Johnson, 2012].

Is this the only way?

It may be argued that, indeed, forcing online users to have bigger boundaries and to face the direct consequences of their actions could be actually a social benefit and that anonymity is, in the end, a not desirable condition. Hate-speech, for example, is thought to be drastically reduced if the norm would be applied, and that the threats posed by the lack of anonymity would be a price worth paying for that. First of all, it should be noted that not always deplorable contents or comments are posted by anonymous accounts. While a link between anonymity and hateful behavior has been noted by [Mondal et al., 2017], another work by Rost et al. showed that non-anonymous individuals can be more aggressive than anonymous ones [Rost et al., 2016]. It's reasonable to say that a precise and unequivocal link between hate-speech and anonymity has not been found.

Another point of view is that there are other conditions apart from anonymity that contribute to hate-speech spread. As suggested by Spears and Lea with their social identity model of deindividuation effects theory (SIDE) [Spears and Lea, 1992] other conditions of social situations are more important in determining if anonymity has a role in hate-speech. To make an analogy, restricting anonymity in this context could be compared to drugs ban: while it may be effective at some level, it doesn't intervene at the root of the problems which is why people feel the necessity to use drugs or to produce hate-speech.

Another criticism of this thesis could be that, indeed, the possibility of anonymity could be an incentive to commit risky activities on social networks, which may involve the diffusion of sensible images/information, the participation in unlawful groups or others. According to this, more controlled and regulated social networks would be preferable. This is a complicated issue and my answer is that a better education about Internet and SNS would be more useful than a prohibitionist norm. An example of work which further investigate the possibility for such a better education is [Henry, 2009].

Conclusion

In this work we discussed about anonymity and social networks, explaining in detail what they are and what are the problems related to them. In particular, we discussed about the idea to enforce the use of real names and surnames on those platforms, so that everyone has to use their real identity also online, and we analyzed what could be the harmful consequences of it especially on younger users. What I want the reader to take away from this work is that these kinds of measures are easy, but often they are just shortcuts: a lot of bad things may happen if they are applied without a deep evaluation. At a more general level, I tried to stress that anonymity is important even if sometimes it is depicted as the root of many negative phenomena on social networks. I hope the reasons provided in Section V are sufficient to stimulate a reasoning about this. The discussion on other ways to prevent negative situations on social networks is an interesting topic for a future work.

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