Social media needs accountability and here’s how to do it.

Social media networks such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are amazing platforms that enable people to express their voice freely. However, it has a tremendous dark side that has plagued all platforms since they were created.

Racism, hate and threats are a pandemic that’s spread through social media.

It seems to have become even worse in recent years although I suspect its just been highlighted more than it has previously and has always been a major problem.

The Problem

Social media platforms allow anyone to create a profile with just an email address, there’s no verification therefore no accountability. You can pose as anyone you like, be anyone and say anything without any consequences. This ‘freedom’ is a major strength of social networks and one of the reasons that they have done so well over the last decade, but is now the time to tighten the screws?

When you create a product you seek to make it as frictionless as possible, optimise the sign up process and only make the user jump through the necessary hoops at that time. This has meant that it’s incredibly easy to create multiple accounts. The sector is also not regulated so there’s no external enforcement to hold companies accountable to actions created on their platforms. I’m not saying that blanket regulation is the solution as I don’t think it is, but something needs to change.

What if you verified every account on the platform so you knew who it was behind the avatar? It’s a hot topic at the moment but I’ve not seen a detailed solution on how this could work, most people have said networks should use identity checks such as scanning a passport or driving license. This comes with a number of problems that we’ll look at below.

Verifying a persons identity gives platforms that ability to block a specific person should they do something that is against the networks policy. However it also means that those who are vulnerable and use social media to speak out can’t as you would know who that person is, potentially putting that person in danger. But is there a solution that could provide accountability and anonymity when needed?

Let’s look at the identification solution.

The Solution

The idea is simple, when you create your account you upload you ID such as a passport or driving license. This is then checked against other information you provide and your account is validated, this is called ‘Know Your Customer’ or KYC. You’ve been through it a number of times such as when you sign up for a bank account or apply for a passport. Some industries, such as finance, have to do this to comply with regulations otherwise they face huge fines.

There is an issue with this though, not everyone has a form of ID. I’ll stick with the UK for now but this will apply globally for the most part. There’s really only two forms of ID in the UK, passport and driving license, both of which you have to apply and pay for. At least 4m people in the UK over the age of 18 do not own a passport or driving license. This means you would exclude a huge proportion of the population from being able to use social media. You exclude people that need the freedom that social media provides, also anyone under the age of 17 won’t have a driving license and most don’t have a passport so how do you allow them to access social networks.

As you can see it’s a difficult problem. Passport and driving license checks alone aren’t enough, you need something else. This is where the banking sector can help. Most people have a current account with their bank, the bank has already verified that persons identity, so why not get the bank to verify that person on behalf of the social media platforms? Well you can, it’s called Open Banking.

Open Banking to the rescue

Chances are you’ve not heard of Open Banking, I won’t bore you with the details but it was created as a universal way to move money and provide secure access to your bank account for third parties. Now this sounds a little scary, allowing a third party access to your bank account, but don’t worry it’s all controlled with security permissions and regulation so those third parties only get access to what they need and you have full control. You can use Open Banking as a method to verify a persons identity already and chances are you’ve probably been through it without realising. You don’t need to upload any ID you simply tap a button, verify with your banking app and job done. This would allow the majority of people the ability to verify without the need for a passport or driving license.

Open Banking however does not help those under 18, most of whom do not have a bank account, although uptake on bank account for younger people is rapidly increasing. So how do you help those under 18 without a bank account or ID? Verify through another verified account. Get the parent of that child to verify the account on the child’s behalf, and hold both the parent and child accountable should the child act in a way that is deemed not appropriate. As a parent myself I would happily do this and would like to be notified if my child had done anything that was inappropriate.

Anonymity

OK, so verification is taken care of but what about anonymity? Can we still use custom avatars and handles? Yes I think you can and should. Not everyone needs to know who owns the account all of the time, therefore publicly you can have a custom handle and avatar but should you act inappropriately then the social networks will be able to view information on who that person actually is to allow the authorities to act when necessary. There could be a blanket ban on all social media networks if each network securely shared block lists of individuals.

Privacy

The last question with this is privacy. I’m a massive advocate for privacy and personal control of data but allowing social networks the ability to pass on information about an individual could be seen as a breach of privacy. I completely understand that. Open Banking does potentially provide the best solution here as the social media company would simply hold a ‘token’ (random unique string of characters) that can be used to request information from the bank about a specific account. This is all fully audited and tracked so it’s possible to view who and why an organisation requested the information. Also maybe a regulator should regulate this part of social media, not it’s content but how identity data is managed.

It’s all a very complicated network of technical and human problems where there is no perfect solution. All I do know Is the current free-for-all solution doesn’t work and is causing incredible pain for people who are victims of racism and hate online.

There is another solution however, we could all just be kind to each other.

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