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Can Fake Accounts Save the Internet?

Reconsidering pseudonymity and what it means to “be yourself” online.

In early July, when England’s soccer team lost the European Championship final to Italy on its home turf, the crushing defeat was followed by a torrent of racist abuse on social media directed at the team’s Black players. The messages — part of an ongoing pattern of social media bigotry — were condemned by politicians, platforms, teammates and fans.

They were also blamed, in part, on a familiar figure: the masked troll. He’s been popping up a lot lately. Depending who you are, he may be the source of all political disinformation; one of an army of bots; the leader of an online mob; a hacker or a scammer. He has a mascot — the guy in a hoodie at his keyboard, face obscured in the shadows, except for a little smirk. In the popular imagination, this figure, operating under a name concealed or chosen, is almost always up to no good.

That could explain why people so often push for unmasking him. In England, this episode renewed calls for tech companies to enforce identity verification for their users. A petition of the British government demanding that it make “verified ID a requirement for opening a social media account” has more than 688,000 signatures. “We have rights to free speech and association, but as real people, not fake people,” wrote Paul Mason, a columnist for The New Statesman.

One optimistic assumption behind these ideas is that racism is so stigmatized, people wouldn’t dare espouse such things under their own names (a curious read of politics, British or otherwise, circa 2021). It implies that to adopt a new identity is to become “fake.”

But it is also pretty close to how things already work. After a decade in which online identity came under increasingly centralized control, in which various digital and offline identities were mingled, and during which personal data became a hot global commodity, control over one’s identity is starting to look more like a threatened privilege than a right. To exist online is to be constantly asked to show yourself.

Online anonymity and pseudonymity have survived accusations of ruining the internet for as long as people have been logging on; they have been abused by bad actors. They’re also widely misunderstood.

A lot of common assumptions about anonymity are complicated by the literature on how people actually behave online, as noted by researcher K. Nathan Matias. In studies, for example, anonymous actors tend to be more, not less, sensitive to group norms. More than half of victims of online harassment already know their harassers. While there is scant evidence that “real name” policies mitigate abuse, there is plenty suggesting that asking people to expose more private information can intensify it. Researchers have found that, in some contexts, the most aggressive commenters have been observed to be more likely to reveal their identities.

An analysis of nearly two decades of British press by Thais Sardá, a researcher at Loughborough University, however, found that coverage of anonymous spaces, often and imprecisely called the “dark web,” was “underpinned by a sharply negative characterization” of anonymity. When represented at all, positive uses of anonymity and pseudonymity are portrayed as narrow and exceptional; it makes sense for dissidents, for instance, but what does everyone else have to hide?

Writing in response to recent calls for the end of anonymity, the journalist Hussein Kesvani reiterated concerns that compelling identifying information from the most vulnerable could leave them worse off. He also pointed to smaller but more universal losses.

In a phone conversation, Mr. Kesvani, who recently published a book on the online life of young Muslims, said his research subjects described anonymity and pseudonymity as ways to avoid the gazes of their families, to explore beyond their denominational communities and to socialize — in other words, more or less the same reasons any young person might desire privacy, online or off.

“In forums, you could be playful in your identities, but in your real world you’re constricted,” he said, recalling the internet where, and when, he came of age. The rise of universal social platforms, Mr. Kesvani said, has made a sort of privacy he took for granted growing up more scarce. “There’s this expectation that you should act online how you act offline,” he said. “Like, ‘You wouldn’t say that in the real world, why would you say that online?’”

Cassius Adair, an assistant professor at New York University and the author of a forthcoming history of transgender spaces on the internet, makes the case that conflicts over online identity disclosure are as old as the internet itself.

In the early ’90s, he said, online spaces were expanding beyond their initial military, industrial and academic roots. “In that moment a lot of people had access to the internet at work, logging in through work, and then accessing things like message boards or mailing lists,” he said. That sharply limited the range of subjects people felt able to talk about on services like Usenet. “If you’re, or tagged with your university, there are a lot of things you might not want to talk about as that person,” he said.

One early solution was to create relays — basically, trusting a third-party service to mask your information. (Think Craigslist’s email relay for sellers.) Such services were appealing but also controversial. “There were lots of forums that split over this,” Mr. Adair said. Eventually people found, or created, more amenable spaces. “It was microcosmic,” he said, “and a type of historical evidence. Marginalized people in this time were not like, ‘Hey, protect us from anonymous trolls.’” They just wanted space.

Mark Pernice

What followed early, credentialed online spaces was, in retrospect, an accidental golden era of online identity construction — a widely accessible web where people adopted handles and chose email addresses, logged into chat rooms and chose their own web domains.

While most of those new identities weren’t strictly anonymous, they assumed a desire for pseudonymity. This extended to early social networks. Of course people might want to construct a new identity on Myspace, out of sight of, say, teachers or co-workers. In this context, asking why someone might say or do something online that they wouldn’t in person is as absurd as asking if they’d act the same way in front of their closest friends as they would in front of their parents.

Then came Facebook. The web had provided a multitude of spaces that could exist separately from offline social connections; Facebook, instead, began by collecting existing social networks into one big context, where disparate community norms and expectations were woven together, or maybe just thrown in a blender.

In doing so, Facebook, along with Google, reanimated power struggles that had been simmering for decades, as the researcher Danah Boyd has noted. In 2014, during a push to enforce a “real name” policy across its platform, Facebook found itself directly at odds with transgender users, among many others, for whom chosen names were a condition of using the platform safely, or at all.

“Your ‘real’ name in the trans community is not your legal name,” Mr. Adair said. “You would never think that their name they use in social settings is a pseudonym.” But outside trans circles, those identities are sometimes met with suspicion. “There’s this idea that we’re de facto concealing something about ourselves,” Mr. Adair said.

And so, he said, legal names became synonymous with “safety, community, closeness and mutual accountability,” even though “it has this other side: exposure, risk, vulnerability.”

The purported upsides of “real” names can be elusive. Consider QAnon, a phenomenon seeded in fringe spaces where anonymity is the norm that spread to Facebook. Its users shared so much QAnon content under their “real” names that Facebook eventually resorted to a blanket ban.

Today, it’s hard to overstate just how thoroughly connected a typical internet user’s various identities — legal, chosen, assigned — have become. There are obvious examples in services like LinkedIn, where one’s public-facing, searchable professional identity is associated with their social identities elsewhere. Platforms that ask for legal names are woven through countless other social networks, shopping sites and commenting systems through unified login features. Facial-recognition technology threatens to tie together all of our identities, everywhere and always.

Beneath all of this is a thriving economy of data in which you might be assigned a variety of new pseudonyms — identities readable and accessible to advertisers, data brokers and untold others, inconsistently and often ineffectively anonymized, and highly correlated with each other. It’s an internet that is less a utility than an open marketplace for identity, an environment in which disclosure is a constant condition of participation. While the centrality of identity has raised the personal stakes for users of popular social networks, people using anonymity and pseudonymity nefariously have provided cover for the platforms themselves.

The need for control over identity is most evident at the margins of this new economy. OnlyFans, a subscription site where people share exclusive and often explicit content, is a space where identities are concealed and constructed for safety, discretion, legality and simple preference.

But it would be a mistake to assume discretion is a fringe need. Emily van Duyn, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, recently embedded with a group of progressive women in rural Texas. A combination of polarization and years of regional and social sorting had left members of the group, whom Dr. van Duyn described as “very much part of the national mainstream, but marginalized locally,” feeling worried.

“There’s a lack of anonymity in their community,” Dr. van Duyn said. “You don’t really have any.” So the group turned to discreet digital organizing. “This sort of thing helps you keep your politics and not threaten your other identities and communities and connections.” She refers to the phenomenon as “contextual marginalization,” and expects it to become more common. (A national survey conducted for her research found that 22 percent of American adults felt the need to hide political conversations from others, with no significant difference between party affiliations.)

The title of her forthcoming book based on this research? “Democracy Lives in Darkness.”

Many of the internet’s most powerful firms owe their success to our identities, from which they’ve extracted billions of dollars of value. Some of them, however, are showing their age. The era they defined is, if not coming to an end, colliding with changing habits. Facebook is increasingly associated with older people, many of whom joined during its experiment in “real names.”

Younger people, for the most part, have gravitated elsewhere, their pseudonyms spread across a variety of games, apps and services, some persistent, some disposable, many carefully tailored to the context in which they’re used. Discord isn’t AIM, but it’s closer in spirit to 2001 than 2021. Snapchat’s assumptions about what its users want to show people, and to whom, are miles from Instagram’s. TikTok is absolutely interested in collecting and monetizing data from its users. But even Bytedance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, knows better than to ask users for their legal names when they sign up.

Social and commercial technologies peeking over the horizon — virtual and augmented reality, persistent virtual worlds and whatever else people mean when they talk about the “metaverse” — promise new ways for people to represent themselves and connect, defaulting, mostly, to pseudonymity. But in their bold claims to being the “next internet,” they also threaten to reset the conversation around online identity once again.

The desire for semi-anonymity shares one concern: control. A troll wants control over who knows what about him; a master-of-the-universe type wants to decide what gets stuck to the family name; a young person needs a space to figure things out; an older person needs a space to change.

And yet, the desire to be different to different people is as familiar as family, as common as having friends and living around other people, valuable to the powerful and the weak. Who hasn’t, at some point, yearned for that kind of agency?

For Context is a column that explores the edges of digital culture.

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