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Forcing Real Names Online Increases Discrimination

Research. People often say that online behavior would improve if every comment system forced people to use their real names. Evidence over the past thirty years suggests that this is not the case. Not only would removing anonymity fail to consistently improve online community behavior – forcing real names in online communities could also increase discrimination and worsen harassment.

According to the article’s author, J. Nathan Matias, a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab Center for Civic Media, there are 9 key fact on anonymity and social problems online:

  1. Even if we all used ‘real names’ more than half of US harassment victims would be unaffected, as they already know their victims.
  2. Conflict, harassment, and discrimination are social and cultural problems, not just online community problems
  3. Revealing personal information exposes people to greater levels of harassment and discrimination. When people’s names and photos are shown on a platform, people who provide a service to them reject transactions from people of color or charge them more. Revealing marital status caused donors give less to students with women teachers, in fields where women were a minority. Gender- and race-based harassment are only possible if people know a person’s gender and/or race, and real names often give strong indications around both of these categories.
  4. Companies that store personal information for business purposes also expose people to potentially serious risks, especially when that information is hacked and leaked.
  5. Identity protections are often the first line of defense for people who face serious risks online. Pseudonymity is a common protective measure.
  6. Requirements of so-called “real names” misunderstand how people manage identity across multiple social contexts, exposing vulnerable people to risks. E.g. people who are exploring LGBTQ identities often manage multiple accounts to prevent disastrous collapses of context.
  7. Clear social norms can reduce problems even when people’s names and other identifying information aren’t visible.
  8. People sometimes reveal their identities during conflicts in order to increase their influence and gain approval from others on their side.
  9. Abusive communities and hate groups do sometimes attempt to protect their identities. But many hate groups operate openly in the attempt to seek legitimacy.

He concludes: We need to change our entire approach to the question. Our concerns about anonymity are overly-simplistic; system design can’t solve social problems without actual social change.

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