Social media companies must start requiring users to verify their identity when opening an account to end the idea that platforms are “consequence-free” areas for abuse, industry experts have said.
Following their Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy, England players Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were all targeted by abusive posts in the wake of their missed penalties in the shoot-out.
Facebook and Twitter condemned the abuse as “abhorrent”, saying they have taken steps to remove the posts and encouraged people to use filters to block out harmful content, but experts said more substantial action is now required to combat the ongoing problem.
Dr Bill Mitchell, director of Policy at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, the industry trade body, said people should be asked to verify their identity in order to use such platforms, and the IT industry believes this could be implemented without compromising personal privacy.
“Despite the boycotts and some technical changes from big tech companies, some people still see social media as a consequence-free playground for racial abuse – as we saw last night with England players,” he said.
“IT experts think these platforms should ask people to verify their real ID behind account handles; at the same time, public anonymity is important to large groups of people and so no-one should have to use their real name online and any verification details behind the account must be rigorously protected.”
Social media companies have previously resisted the idea of introducing identification verification, arguing that as well as possible privacy concerns for users, it would be unfair as many people around the world lack or do not have access to an official ID.
According to recent research from BCS, more than half of tech experts (56%) believe linking social media accounts to true identities is technically achievable.
“It’s clear the IT profession believes we can prevent social media being an anonymous playground for racism, homophobia and hate speech,” Dr Mitchell said.
“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.”
In response to the latest online attacks, Twitter labelled the abuse “abhorrent”, saying it has “absolutely no place on Twitter”.
“In the past 24 hours, through a combination of machine learning-based automation and human review, we have swiftly removed over 1,000 Tweets and permanently suspended a number of accounts for violating our rules – the vast majority of which we detected ourselves proactively using technology,” the company said in a statement.
“We will continue to take action when we identify any tweets or accounts that violate our policies.
“We have proactively engaged and continue to collaborate with our partners across the football community to identify ways to tackle this issue collectively and will continue to play our part in curbing this unacceptable behaviour — both online and offline.”
Facebook – which owns Instagram – said it tries to remove harmful content as quickly as possible and encouraged people to use the tools it offers to block abuse.
“No-one should have to experience racist abuse anywhere, and we don’t want it on Instagram,” a Facebook company spokesperson said.
“We quickly removed comments and accounts directing abuse at England’s footballers last night and we’ll continue to take action against those that break our rules.
“In addition to our work to remove this content, we encourage all players to turn on Hidden Words, a tool which means no-one has to see abuse in their comments or DMs.
“No one thing will fix this challenge overnight, but we’re committed to keeping our community safe from abuse.”