Social media should verify users to address racist football abuse, say IT experts

Social media should require users to verify their identities to combat online abuse, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT has said.

The call for authentication of user IDs on platforms like Facebook and Instagram comes after England players faced a barrage of racist abuse following the team’s Euro 2020 final defeat.

“Despite the boycotts and some technical changes from big tech companies, some people still see social media as a consequence-free playground for racial abuse – as we saw last night with England players,” said Dr Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. “IT experts think these platforms should ask people to verify their real ID behind account handles; at the same time, public anonymity is important to large groups of people and so no one should have to use their real name online and any verification details behind the account must be rigorously protected.”

On Monday, the UK prime minister and the Footfall Association (FA) condemned the racist abuse of Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho.

“This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media,” said Boris Johnson. “Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.”

The FA said that anyone behind "such disgusting behaviour" is not welcome in following the team.

"We will do all we can to support the players affected while urging the toughest punishments possible for anyone responsible,” it said in a statement. "We will continue to do everything we can to stamp discrimination out of the game, but we implore government to act quickly and bring in the appropriate legislation so this abuse has real life consequences.”

According to a poll of the IT industry carried out by BCS earlier this year - most tech experts (64 per cent) want platforms like Twitter and Facebook to ask for real ID, making people accountable for what they post.

Around a quarter (26 per cent) said users should remain unverified, and 10 per cent were undecided.

More than half of tech experts polled (56 per cent) by the professional body for the IT industry, including senior leaders and academics, said linking social media accounts to true identities is technically achievable. Only 26 per cent indicated it is not achievable and 17 per cent were neutral.

Half said social media companies themselves should have the main responsibility for reducing online abuse.

BCS members added that verified identity details should not have to be part of users’ public profiles. This would keep the anonymity needed for legitimate protest, minority groups or whistleblowing.

A majority (76 per cent) of tech professionals said they would also support optional verification of social media ID, if that was the solution eventually introduced in the forthcoming Online Harms Bill. 90 per cent said it should be made simple for social media users to see and turn off all unverified accounts.

“It’s clear the IT profession believes we can prevent social media being an anonymous playground for racism, homophobia and hate speech,” added Mitchell. “Tech experts want users to be accountable for what they say, and they see few technical barriers to verifying the real ID behind account handles.”

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