In Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (later more popularly known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Archbishop Claude Frollo offers a critique of modern technology, the printing press.
As Dom Claude points at the majestic towers of the cathedral with his left hand, he points at a printed book with his right. “Alas,” he said, “this will kill that.”
“It was a presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner,” Hugo wrote.
Hugo might as well have had his fictional priest pointing at both a cell phone and the U.S. Capitol.
Social media as a “mode of expression” is almost unrecognizable from the days when Jack Dorsey brought Twitter to the South by Southwest Festival in spring of 2006. At SXSW, users began telling each other which cool music shows to go see and recommending places in Austin to go eat. (“Twitter will flame out before the end of 2007,” said one Montreal web developer after trying the service out.)
Fast forward 15 years, and Twitter has the power to pit nations against each other and foment armed revolution within nations. It all but certainly elected a U.S. president in 2016, and it helped stoke a violent government insurrection when he lost in 2020.
The U.S. Capitol occupation on January 6 triggered a torrent of hand-wringing about what to do to keep social media from killing both people and institutions. Twitter was accused of “canceling” conservatives for permanently blocking President Donald Trump, who had used its service to stoke his supporters by telling them he had actually won the election in November. Amazon Web Services dropped Parler, a Twitter competitor that caters to right-wingers, from its web hosting services after multiple warnings that Parler was behind in moderating violent and threatening content on its platform.
The resulting imbroglio over social media platforms exposed the problem of regulating speech when a service hosts hundreds of millions of users. But it is a problem that is impossible to fix to anyone’s satisfaction. Moderate too many comments, and you will be accused of “canceling” one side or the other. Moderate too few comments, and congressmen and women end up cowering behind their desks as self-described shamans in Viking helmets storm the Capitol.
The big social media platforms—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.—will likely chug along, tinkering with their algorithms here and there. But any new platforms that come along will be especially vulnerable to hostile troll invasions—the fewer users a site has, the easier it is to swamp with toxicity.
For those who want to give it a shot, I would suggest taming a culprit as old as speech itself: anonymity.
In the naively optimistic days of social media, the idea of anonymity was supposed to foster more honest conversation. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth. That has now become: Give a man a mask, and he will tell you it was cut from a baby and worn by Hillary Clinton.
Waves of threats and abuse pour forward from cryptic accounts that may not even be real human beings. Users say obscene, harmful, and threatening things that human beings would never say to one another in person or on a work email thread without any potential repercussions beyond getting locked out of their account.
This anonymity helps conspiracies gain a foothold over Americans. The most damaging at the moment—QAnon—literally has the word “anonymous” in the name, feeding the idea that the person at the center of it has some sort of secret knowledge. If it was “Q Randy,” people would say, “Isn’t Randy the guy down in the file room who reheated salmon in the break room microwave?” That Randy would likely not have members of Congress under his thumb.
Anonymous users get to poison political discourse without any retribution. But social norms enforced by people with standing are what keeps society functioning. The answer for new social media platforms, then, may be to either limit or eliminate anonymity altogether. Link each account to a cell phone bill or credit card. In effect, give everyone Twitter’s much-envied “blue check”—verify identities and allow users to police one another.
It’s not difficult to see how this often works in practice. Compare the comments sections on websites that allow anonymous users with ones that require commenters to be subscribers—on the threads with no anonymity, heated debate happens, but it is more often cordial, kept in check by real people.
Limiting anonymity isn’t even a particularly new idea. In his 2019 book Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, Arthur Brooks calls anonymity on the internet “a net bad” and argues it “should be actively discouraged by private companies and in personal behavior.”
As Parler came crashing down a few weeks ago, I took to Twitter one morning to pitch the idea of a new social media site where identity was verified. By lunchtime, I had been flooded by thousands of—you guessed it—anonymous users, accusing me of wanting to silence the powerless. And some criticism came from Twitter users with blue checks—users who, naturally, had to verify their own identities to earn that coveted designation.
The objections went something like this: “But what about people who live under oppressive regimes and need anonymity to protect their lives? What about victims of sexual abuse and LGBT people and minorities that need protection? Weren’t the Federalist Papers anonymous?”
Those were the most rational ones. By that evening, I was being accused of wanting to kill people, urging women to be raped, and lobbying on behalf of Nazis. Weeks later, an anonymous account tweeted the following to my employers: “Christian Schneider still hasn’t apologized for proposing to enable harassment of LGBT people, women who are stalked, dissidents in dictatorships etc. on social media. Do you support this abusive mentality?”
For one, “abusive mentality” is most prevalent among those who refuse to put their names or faces on their threats. And anonymous harassment can be scarier than specific threats—Is it someone who lives in my neighborhood? Someone I work with?
Further, identity verification seems to be a valid way for a new social media platform to differentiate itself from the others that exist. Do you want to remain on a site where you can be anonymous? Are you afraid of people finding out who you are at work? Then feel free to stay on Twitter.
But I suspect there is a market for another social media site, one that isn’t overrun by anonymous trolls. One where women can make political arguments without “spunkdude6969” commenting on their looks or weight. One where people can’t spread conspiracy theories about pedophile rings being run out of a pizza joint without risking that their friends or co-workers will see what they are sharing under their own name.
Identity verification would not be a panacea, shocking everyone into debating like Benjamin Disraeli. There are plenty of obstreperous people willing to put their names on their wackadoodle rantings, the last president among them.
But in many cases, those people are only elevating information that bubbles up from the depths in which trolls dwell. Reduce the source of those unfounded derangements, and there is less chance they will be espoused by a Georgia congresswoman.
If social media platforms can’t get the content posted on their sites under control, then the government will try to do it for them. In those cases, the ability to share information freely on the internet may depend on the political party of those in power at any given time.
Further, the powerless will lose even more power if their favorite moderation-averse social media site is sued out of existence for secretly hosting terrorists (or even worse, people who quote-tweet with just the word “this.”)
Before the rise of social media, there were limits to what was deemed appropriate in “polite conversation.” Parents might tell their kids before sending them off to a friend’s house, “Never talk religion or politics at the dinner table.” But even feisty debates were less likely to overheat because limits were applied by real people in social settings.
Without those pressures, we become a society of unaccountable trolls yelling at unaccountable trolls, with disinformation emerging as the ultimate winner. And we have seen the results when it comes to social media and democracy. To paraphrase Claude Frollo, “this” is killing “that.”