Social media should require users to verify their identities, to combat anonymous racism, homophobia and other abuse targeted at minorities and vulnerable groups, according to a poll of BCS members. Amanda Matheson reports.

Most BCS members (64%) who took part in the recent survey want platforms like Twitter and Facebook to ask for real ID, making people accountable for what they post. Around a quarter (26%) said users should remain unverified, and 10% were undecided.

English Premier League, EFL and WSL football announced a three day weekend long boycott of social media platforms in an effort to combat abuse and discrimination.

Celebrities from former model Katie Price to Manchester Utd captain Harry Maguire and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry have called on social media companies to demand proof of genuine names and other ID, as a means to track trolling.

Technically possible to check ID

More than half of tech experts polled (56%) by the professional body for the IT industry, including senior leaders and academics, said linking social media accounts to true identities is technically achievable. Slightly over a quarter (26%) indicated it is not achievable and 17% were neutral.

  • Half (50%) said social media companies themselves should have the main responsibility for reducing online abuse.
  • 19% thought an independent regulator should have that role.
  • 17% thought it was the responsibility of individual users.
  • 5% stated it was the job of government to lead on the reduction of trolling.
  • 4% felt it should be led by the police.

BCS members added that verified identity details should not have to be part of users’ public profiles. This would keep the anonymity needed for legitimate protest, minority groups or whistleblowing.

A majority (76%) of tech professionals said they would also support optional verification of social media ID, if that was the solution eventually introduced in the forthcoming Online Harms Bill.

90% said it should be made simple for social media users to see and turn off all unverified accounts.

Debate needed

Dr Bill Mitchell OBE, Director of Policy at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, said: “It’s clear the IT profession believes we can prevent social media being an anonymous playground for racism, homophobia and hate speech. Tech experts want users to be accountable for what they say, and they see few technical barriers to verifying the real ID behind account handles.

“At the same time, public anonymity is important to large groups of people, especially those in difficult or dangerous situations or who are vulnerable to targeted abuse. No one should have to use their real name online and any verification details behind the account must be rigorously protected.

“We need those affected by such a change to be part of the debate to make sure there are ethical and secure solutions for verifiable ID available for all types of social media.”