People complain about the Wild West nature of the internet, and how social media has changed life completely. People miss the point, and the sooner our online identity reflects our real one, the better.
There are many complaints about social media and how it has changed our lives. The three biggest complaints I see in the media are:
- The Twitter storm: This is when people on social media get agitated about something, usually a controversial or hot topic. The speed of social media means a wrong or incorrect ‘fact’ gets blown out of proportion. The end result is people receiving huge amounts of abuse and in worst case scenarios ends up with physical intimidation and violence. People have even been driven to suicide because of online bullying.
- The anonymity: It’s easy to set up a new social media account; all you need is a valid email address. This means I can have many accounts all under different names. It’s easier for someone to harass a victim and make it seem like there are many people behind it when there aren’t.
- The free-for-all: The internet is a dark place and many shocking, violent and scary things can be shared. From eye-watering cruelty to revenge porn; it’s all online. This is done with nothing more than a few clicks. Tracing and removing these things is almost impossible. Victims end up scarred for life.
I’ve written about how dangerous social media is in the hands of governments. That’s a different discussion.
People argue that governments should regulate tech companies and hold them to account. I argue this is pointless, and anyone who argues for this has missed the point of technology.
What if we imagined life without technology for a minute?
Mapping technology to our lives
Let’s imagine a world without computers for a second. It’s always worth taking this step back to see how we would have handled these situations without technology. The solution may be right under our noses.
Imagine if I decided to write a letter claiming you are a criminal. I describe you in the centre of vast criminal conspiracies, detail everything on paper, make copies and send it out to people.
That would be wrong.
Would anyone suggest that we imprison the postman for spreading the news?
Would you want to ban the postal service ‘because it facilitates the spread of criminal material’?
Would you want to ban pens and paper because ‘without pen and paper, these things can’t happen’?
The pattern here is clear: The technology used to create or disseminate illegal material is not at fault. The dissemination facility that spread messages is not culpable.
Going back to social media then, we shouldn’t call for tech company regulation. We shouldn’t control them or make them liable for the content on their networks.
But what about online anonymity?
Anonymity is a lot easier online.
This is the key difference between the online and offline versions of the above example. I share information on my Facebook pages, for example, and my name and face are there for all to see. But it’s easy to fake that online identity. For all you know, I’m a 12-year old Vietnamese girl in a wheelchair.
I argue that established social media platforms need to leverage real-world identities.
Facebook could make me login or authenticate via a real-world facility that proves my identity. It would be clear that the person sharing stuff on Facebook is ‘Antoine Borg’ of a fixed address.
And if I did anything illegal, slandered anyone or shared anything libellous then the police in my country can find me and charge me with that. Facebook wouldn’t need to patrol my online posts. After all, how would Facebook know what’s illegal in Malta? And why should it?
But the Maltese police do. And the responsibility to monitor, track and chase criminals in their jurisdiction is still there.
If social media platforms tied users to real identities, they can let the established justice system continue to work as it always has. Without an online identity, the online world is a free-for-all. And the tech companies are being held responsible for it.
Which is unfair.
- Twitter storm; Technopedia; 2013-12-06
All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.
Written by: Antoine P Borg
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