Following England’s Euro 2020 final defeat in July 2021, social media platforms were flooded with racist abuse targeted at Black soccer players. The online trolling was carried out by thousands of anonymous social media accounts, highlighting how a lack of accountability enables anti-social and criminal behavior.
The scary reality is that this latest incident is only the tip of the iceberg. Teenage suicides related to cyberbullying, election interference, and even terrorism recruitment are a result of online anonymity and are a threat to society. There have been repeated calls and petitions for social media platforms to verify their users’ identities and address the problem.
Traditionally, society is built on laws that are designed to hold us all accountable, and transgressors are liable to prosecution. However, modern society is increasingly moving into a virtual and digital world, one that is anonymous and without accountability, where it has become easy for individuals to operate in the shadows and behave as they please.
KYC (Know Your Customer) was originally created as a legal framework enforcing transparency and accountability between businesses and their customers. It has been incredibly effective at governing industries, such as financial services. However, at a time when it is clear that social media would benefit from utilizing KYC, there appears to be no moves from social media owners to do so. The question is, why?
Anonymity breeds irresponsibility
Returning to the example of racism in soccer, we see that people’s inhibitions and level of personal responsibility are reduced when their identities are not public. Former England football captain Rio Ferdinand illustrated the lack of consequences online trolls face when giving evidence to Members of Parliament and Peers in response to the United Kingdom government’s draft Online Safety Bill. Ferdinand said, “If you throw a banana on a pitch, there will be repercussions. But online, you can post a banana to a Black player with racist connotations behind it, and you’re not going to get punished. There’s no repercussions.”
Both anecdotal and academic studies support Ferdinand’s assertion that anonymity online provides a safe place for those who wish to do harm to others. We see this happening on a microcommunity level, such as with the young bullies who devastate the lives of fellow students. It’s also apparent on a macro level, as with the radicalization of individuals who go on to be recruited by some of the most dangerous terrorist organizations on the globe.
It seems to now be a part of the political process that national elections are fraught with misinformation being spread via social media, with cases in the U.S. recently of extremists using fringe social media accounts to push violent accusations of fraud. When Mark Zuckerberg speaks of Facebook’s purpose to “just help people connect and communicate more efficiently,” his claim seems naive in the least, given the reality of how social media has infiltrated every level of human and public life, transcending socio-economics and geography.
Through this lens, the time is ripe for KYC to be adopted by social media companies. If they don’t, they must explain why not.
The technology is here
There were 4.48 billion social media users worldwide in July 2021, equating to almost 57% of the total global population. The data further suggests that people now spend approximately 15% of their waking lives using social media. This being the case, it’s imperative that the culture and environment is trustworthy. If we have laws in the physical world, they need to be reflected in the virtual world. KYC would change the game. Facing consequences, including fines, litigation, or prosecution, would certainly provide a deterrent for many once they start seeing these ramifications play out.
Robust KYC requires a business to prove who its customers are and where they live—traditionally this would be a national ID and a bank statement or utility bill within the last three months. Social media platforms have billions of users from every country in the world, which would make the traditional means of KYC almost impossible. However digital identity startups, such Onfido for Europe and Smile Identity for Africa, are creating solutions that can work anywhere in the world.
One of the key missing components from scalable KYC solutions is proving where people live. There are currently 4 billion people across the world who do not have a formal physical address, amounting to nearly half the global population. Smart addressing fills that void and enables any business—including global social media—to account for where its customers live, a critical component of KYC.
Blue pill or red pill?
Social media owners have two options that would define how they are used and perceived. The first option is to operate without KYC and to keep completely anonymous, in the vein of Reddit. In that instance, there is no expectation that people are using real names, and therefore the content is treated as such. It creates a caveat and gives people the choice to engage or avoid it if this type of content is problematic for them. The second option is where users are known and identified through KYC. When people can be held accountable, information becomes more trustworthy and reliable. Facebook could be included in this category.
This approach ultimately gives consumers a choice. If they want to post content that they don’t want to have associated with their name, there are platforms where they can do so. Alternatively, on platforms where everyone is considered to be trustworthy, then they have to prove who they are and post content that’s associated with their real identity.
Where we are today
We seem to be a long way from KYC-enabled social media. There appears to be a distinct lack of appetite from social media owners to properly manage and regulate their users, and they aren’t under sufficient pressure from national governments or other authorities. Nobody who can make a difference seems to want to take this situation seriously, which leads back to the original question of this discussion—why? What exactly will it take for this to change? We are already seeing loss of life, loss of democracy, and a loss of peace in nations where bad actors are taking advantage of the power of social media for their own objectives.
If the status quo serves the powers that be more than it disturbs them, it’s up to the regular citizens of the world to truly understand the cost of their social media freedoms. And by the time they do, it might just be too late.
Timbo Drayson is the CEO and cofounder of OkHi, a smart addressing and verification system designed to help the 4 billion people across the globe without an address “be included.” He previously worked in product management and marketing at Google.