Verifying social media accounts: Even the Founding Fathers would approve

Our democracy is in dire need of methods to curtail manipulation and hyper-polarization on social media.

News that Facebook’s “war room” has gone silent following the midterm elections is a disappointing reminder that the industry lacks the willingness to implement a credible, long-term strategy to address these issues.

Ideally, social media companies should solve this crisis, but with a record of inaction and continuous revelations of dubious behavior, the government may be compelled to step in.

ADVERTISEMENT

The idea of “universal verification” could be the solution. It assumes and asserts that in an environment in which all accounts are properly verified, users cannot escape the consequences for unscrupulous or reckless activity by cloaking themselves in anonymity. An added benefit is that it unburdens companies from becoming free-speech police.  

Facebook has taken an incremental step in the right direction by requiring more authentication for certain pages, but the scope is not wide enough to be truly effective.

Complicating the situation is the notion that any move toward elevated verification is a further encroachment on cherished liberties. Many people incorrectly assume that elevated accountability and individual liberty online is a zero sum game. It is not.

Thoughtful balance — mandating verification where it merits, and allowing anonymity where it doesn’t — is key to making our digital world a better place.   

Like it or not, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have become the cauldrons of our democracy. Many Americans are waging the battle of ideas on these platforms, directly affecting the formation of opinions about our system of government and way of life.

This is why it is critically important that citizens are able to trust that the sources of information and opinion on these platforms are genuine. This trust is vital in establishing context to information, regardless of how it fits into a person’s worldview.

The most destructive consequence of unverified accounts is that it allows malign actors — foreign and domestic — to sway public opinion. The other major repercussion is that it empowers individuals and groups to influence the public debate without suffering any consequences for disseminating outrageous, harmful or untrue information.   

Everyone has the right to voice opinions in public forums, but they should have to own those opinions, as if they were speaking in person in a town square, and not be able to cower behind the anonymity so readily available online.  

That said, increased standards of verification on social media do not completely eradicate anonymity, which is an essential tool of political liberty.

One needs only to look back to our Founding Fathers to understand that anonymity gives individuals protection and ideas room to grow. The newspapers that published the “The Federalist” essays knew and verified that authors were esteemed members of society. They protected their identities and served a vital role in the democratic process by publishing their ideas.

This sort of anonymity should continue to be defended, particularly in light of the shifting political winds in our country, but it cannot be confused with the anonymity so pervasive on social media that has led to so much harm and division within our society.

Parody and satire accounts should be protected, but special care needs to be taken to ensure users know the difference, and they should be put through a process that may be described as “verified anonymity.”

While increased measures of verification must be implemented on the biggest social media platforms, there is no need to extend such a regime to all, simply because the scope of their influence does not have the ability to shake the pillars of our democracy.

Just as speaking at a public forum is different from what is said or done in the privacy of one’s home or at small gathering, so too is it different in what is said on platforms with tremendous reach and audience than ones that are smaller scale and more specific in nature.

Determining the metric by which platforms should comply with elevated verification is not a straightforward question to answer, but it is clear that Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter qualify simply because of their immense number of users.

What is not in question is the need to do something. The consequences of continued inaction on this front pose further risks to our democratic way of life from disinformation, fake news and unchecked hate speech. If the current situation of rampant anonymity is allowed to continue, trust in information and institutions, and the basic concept of truth, will continue to erode. The Founding Fathers likely would agree.

Paul Hidalgo is a messaging strategist for a U.S. Department of Defense contractor. His teams have successfully disrupted the propaganda efforts of state-sponsored malign actors and extremist groups. He also oversees production of online news content for foreign audiences, creating targeted advertising and social media campaigns.