Let’s talk about ID verification for social media

The idea of requiring ID verification to open a social media account has been getting a lot of attention since Sunday’s football game and the abhorrent abuse received by players. On the surface, it makes total sense - if we know who someone is, then they will be less inclined to post racist comments, and if they do, it will be easier to keep them accountable.

However, it’s way more complicated than that. As anyone who has worked in tech or finance will tell you, identity is the hardest problem to solve on the internet. Globally, billions of people lack identity documents and they are disproportionately lower-income, ethnic minorities. Getting an identity document, like a passport or a drivers license, requires money, documentation and accessible government infrastructure. Without all 3, you’re out of luck. This is why billions of people are “unbanked”, meaning they lack access to basic financial services.

Equality of access to identity documents is no less an issue in the UK. By requiring them for access to social media, you are effectively excluding these voices from the conversation. Far from making social media less racist, it would make it (even more?) dominated by middle-class, privileged white voices. If such a law was not global (and it is not feasible for it to even be global), bad actors would simply use any number of means to make it look like they were from another country. It would not solve the problem.

In short, the next Marcus Rashford would be excluded from the conversation. They would be unable to be inspired by his example, both on and off the field. And the racists would find ways to get around any restrictions imposed.

Case in point: in the US, photo ID laws supposedly designed to “reduce voter fraud” have only served to make it disproportionately harder for African Americans to vote.

Playing this forward, requiring every social media account to be backed by verified identity removes anonymity. It leaves the door open for authoritarian governments and corrupt police forces to persecute people for their views. While this may seem far-fetched in the UK, you only need to look at Hong Kong, Ukraine and others to see how this story ends. It’s not pretty.

This doesn’t mean we should give up. We need to call out and condemn racism when we see it. Already, we’ve seen every racist comment being drowned out by hundreds of positive ones, and people educating each other on how to report bad actors. This is great!

We need to find ways to foster an inclusive conversation that does not exclude the very people we are trying to help.

Edward Dowling @edowling