Anonymity vs accountability: Is it time for social media regulation?

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Earlier this week, Samsung admitted that it had been posting anonymous comments praising its own products and slamming rival HTC on Taiwanese gadget sites. The electronics brand was rumbled when TaiwanSamsungLeaks revealed that Samsung’s marketing team had paid students to post claims on forums, including “The HTC One X repeatedly crashes,” “The Galaxy S3 benchmarks better than the HTC One X,” and “The Galaxy Note is way better than the HTC Sensation XL.” In light of these revelations, Mark Courtney examines whether it's time to introduce social media regulation?

We all know there are plenty of fake accounts on social media. Bogus accounts which can be created or even bought to send spam, make people seem more popular than they are, or possibly more sinister purposes. Recently, half of singer Justin Bieber’s 37 million Twitter followers were claimed to be fake by social media group Socialbakers. There are large grey areas in the world of social media, which make the world that companies are looking to engage one of uncertainty.

The advantages of engaging through social media are well documented. Companies can enjoy a closer relationship with their customers and clients, as recently demonstrated by O2 which offered a great example of how a negative situation such as network outages could be softened by effective social media management. Social media sites also offer global reach, provide a platform to share content and their reach and impact is easily measurable. Even better, all of this is free as the infrastructure is managed by the social media network itself.

Businesses and brands everywhere are engaging with social media, but little is documented about the risk to brands of not knowing who they are engaging with. With so many fraudulent accounts, and no fundamental way of proving the identity people online, what’s to stop someone hitting the company hard in terms of reputation? When people are anonymous, they can effectively say things with no repercussions. Just look at the damages of online bullying and trolling. In the same way a company’s name can be slandered. False and libellous allegations can be made with the sense of security that anonymity brings. People can wrongly think they’re above the law which is of course bad news for companies whose reputation is on the line.

What should be anonymous?

These dangers tie into the greater issue of whether and to what extent the internet should be anonymous. The implications of knowing who’s who on the internet go far wider than social media and there has recently been talk about introducing regulation in online advertising. This would mean that over 18 products such as alcohol, online gambling, or 18+ rated games, could only be marketed at their target audience. But how could this be enforced without effective identity verification? Without any form of regulation, it is not difficult for minors to be enticed by such unsuitable products and not much harder to actually access and purchase them. To enable this proposed change, companies would need to be able to prove that the people they are marketing to online are of a suitable age.

Regulation and the idea of removing user anonymity bring about their own problems too. There is the understandable fear of misuse or loss of user information; the fear of it being used for fraudulent purposes; and in countries where expressing certain political views has serious implications, the fear of being readily identifiable is justified. Another problem to consider is the threat of identity theft. Having all of your real details on your Facebook profile would make you an easy target.

We believe that anonymity is important, but if something goes wrong, there’s also got to be some way to get back to the source. This doesn’t mean that people always have to be overtly identifiable and it would certainly be hard to regulate, but we would recommend a responsible body or trade organisation where the authorities (closely controlled)would be able to track illegal activity back to its perpetrator.

An analogy we like to like to use for this, is that people should be able to travel the internet highway with the equivalent of a car registration plate that is issued upon proper verification by a secure and certified issuing body or identity provider. Just like a car registration issued by the independent DVLA.

Whilst the registration could be used to identify you if needed, the sites you visit on the web would not need to know your name or where you live, unless you wanted to tell them your details (consent). And if you wanted to hide your appearance from them then that would be possible too.

However, just like the real highway, if there is an issue such as speeding or dangerous driving, a reputable body would be able to trace the incident back to the culprit with confidence. Although it hopefully wouldn’t come to this very often, the fact this can happen provides assurance to others on that highway (and their parents) and ensures that drivers act more responsibly. This would still allow the beneficial aspects of anonymity whilst taking away the perceived sense of being untouchable which can cause so much damage.

It’s clear that the pace of innovation and the explosion of the internet have outstripped the pace of regulation and safeguarding. But it’s time for that regulation catch up. This is particularly needed as companies are rightly encouraged to engage with communities across social media. The opportunities for breaking down barriers between customers and companies are great, but there is also a duty to protect companies who are brave enough to do so.

Mark Courtney is global product and services director at GB Group

About Mark Courtney


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