/ Technology

Stop anonymous abuse on social networks

Lots of faces with questions marks

Should you be allowed to use social networks to post comments anonymously? As a recent, and very tragic, story proves, the short answer is that it depends on what you’ve got to say.

In my view, Facebook, Google+ or any other social network or community site shouldn’t be used to bully or harass individuals at all.

Thankfully, that’s how we operate here on Which? Conversation (check out our commenting guidelines to see more on what is and isn’t acceptable). Unfortunately, not all community sites operate under these simple rules.

Cyberbullying is on the rise

The reason I posed the original question is to do with a tragic story about a teenager who died in February. This week, an inquest found that she was driven to suicide by the awful bullying she received via anonymous postings on a variety of social networks.

The charity Family Lives believes cyberbullying is on the rise. Since January 2009 it has seen calls to its bullying helpline increase by 13% and calls about cyberbullying rise by 77%.

A few months ago, I wrote another news story about cyberbullying. This time it was head teachers who were being driven to their wits’ end by anonymous comments seemingly made by disgruntled parents, pupils and ex-pupils.

The National Association of Head Teachers said at the time that one in five head teachers had been victimised on a social network and that bullying and harassment of head teachers was on the rise. I’m sure I’ll write another story in the near future that runs along similar lines.

Put a stop to anonymous comments

But that’s not good enough. I really believe if we want to put an end to this abuse, where normal people, under the cloak of anonymity, turn into awful internet thugs, then site moderators and owners need to start by addressing the issue of anonymity.

Jeremy Todd, chief executive of the charity Family Lives, agrees: ‘the notion of anonymity on these websites needs to be challenged, because there can be tragic consequences’.

If you’re going to be mean about someone, then at the very least, do so under the full glare of your own name. That way, the target can answer back. They can challenge you openly rather than feel they are fighting an invisible, but all too real enemy.

If site moderators took that stance, cyberbullies would think twice before posting. Who knows, it could even stop it completely. It might move elsewhere, but at least it wouldn’t be on social networks, on blogs or in chat rooms.

Murk says:
27 July 2011

Whilst an apparently good sentiment (why shouldn’t you use your real name?), this sentiment is, I think, hopelessly naive. Like the G+ policy.

Forcing ‘real’ names can disenfranchise those with good reason NOT to use real names.

E.g. People who wish to separate personal and public (teachers may not wish to use real name online) when participating in a discussion on something like infertility, or indulging in discussion on ‘cosplay’. Rape survivors may want to avoid using real name. People wanting not to tracked by ex-partners, people who are better known by something other than their birth name. In some parts of the world, e.g. Hong Kong, the names on people’s passports is NOT what they use in every aspect of their lives.

The list goes on.

This puts aside how names are used in different fora. The name I use in one circle is very different to in another. Some of those people don’t know any other name – but I’ve known them years (and in some cases, decades). Would the name on a passport be more meaningful to them? No.


The solution to online bullying is better policing of fora, not some insistence on ‘real names’ in public. To do so just means fake names will be used, paradoxically reducing accountability more than allowing persistant pseudonyms.


People can be d***s under any old name: http://consumerist.com/2011/07/advance-fee-fraudsters-already-exploiting-google.html

What matters is the management of the community, e.g. registration via email account and willingness to ban an account. Insisting on a naming process is almost certainly guaranteed to meet failure at worst, and massive inconvenience at best.


… and in some cases, it can border on racism if the wrong algorithm for the ‘rightness’ of a name is used.


Yes, online bullying can be a problem, but this is not a solution.


Hi Murk,

Thanks for your comments and your links.

The point I’m making here is that if you’re going to bully, victimize or be abusive to someone, then stand up and be counted using your full name. One of the reasons cyber bullying, whether of adults or children, is on the rise is that people can hide behind pseudonyms and so can distance themselves from their behaviour. They can rationalise to themselves that they didn’t actually say or write that awful comment; someone else did. It’s the lack of accountability that I can’t abide.

Murk says:
27 July 2011

To be clear – publishing full name 100% of the time is what I’m objecting to… i.e. disallowing pseudonyms. I realise this is not anonymity.

Pseudonymity: A site insisting on a traceable ID whilst hiding that credential on the public profile..
Anonymity: A site requiring no ID at all.
Full name publishing: Looks like traceable ID – more likely to be faked

Murk says:
27 July 2011


(sorry, no reply link, so comment goes here).

Yes, I do agree that bullies being anonymous is a Bad Thing. However, one must be very careful about any system which says ‘your public profile must be your Real Name’ – as this can have undesirable consequences (and is a live issue right now, as this is just what Google have done with their new G+ system).

The only way to say that ‘if you’re going to bully, use your real name’ is to ban pseudonyms entirely. This is not practicable, or in my view desirable.

If you insist on ‘real names’, there’ll be an awful lot of ‘John Smith’s out there, often for very good and innocent reasons. E.g. if the head-teacher in your article were using a pseudonym, they wouldn’t have all those idiots hassling them in their social online circles.

Names are often not very unique, nor in some cases are they conventional ‘first name, last name, roman alphabet’. Email addresses much more unique (although admittedly, they can easily be changed, and one person could have many).

Names are flexible. My wife has two names on her passport, as socially she used a married name, professionally she does not. People know her by one or other name, some people she works with do know know her married name, and I would imagine that there are folk by now who don’t know her previous name.

Names are easily changed. To use Google as an example again, they’re insisting on a real name so that people can see it is you. If I’m ‘John Smith’ (I’m not) my email address is much less ambiguous!

I don’t think insisting on real names addresses the cyber-bully issue, as it is unenforceable (also in some jurisdictions it is illegal to verify in any practical way as it’s unlawful to transmit official documentation, iirc). Thus there is the downside of losing the advantage of pseudonyms with the disadvantage of not solving cyberbullying.

It’s not a perfect world, and one must balance dealing with the cyber-bully against the value to many of pseudonymity (e.g. since the early 90s I don’t use my real name on the web, after search engines made this a silly thing to do) but do you it in email -so if you email me, (and you have my email address), then no problem, private is not public.

I’m straying from the point here. To summarise, yes, cyber-bullying is an issue, but insisting on real names won’t help, especially with no meaningful way to verify the names other than ‘that looks real’.

I think the solution lies more along the lines of:
a) user registration verification (i.e. is this a real email address?)
b) good use of killfiles (killfiles were common in usenet, but they’ve gone away now, it’s a retrogressive step, shame)
c) speedy, and easy to find complaint procedure
d) blocking of accounts (suspension first, must allow a defence)

I recognise that it’s not going to be perfect, but no system is – however, I am wary of solutions which may have unintended side effects.

(Ah, I miss the killfile, I determined a subject was not of interest or that someone was being an idiot, they got an entry in the killfile, and they disappeared from my universe…. bliss. I can’t even filter a hashtag in twitter on most clients!)

A decent public profile (such as G+) would allow me to use different names with different circles of people.
In my case,
Pseudonym A for Public
Pseudonym A and B for one subgroup
Real Name and NOT pseudonym for another subgroup
(Google my real name, and I appear only once on the first page of results, google one of my pseudonyms, different story)

The inability to do this, coupled with a desire to keep work and play separate (why should my work colleagues see who all my friends are, and all my social interests?) means that I simply don’t add certain people to my social networks.

In my case, Pseudonym A and Pseudonym B have both been around for about 20 years – some people ONLY know me by those names. Indeed, if I were to post under my ‘real name’, long time acquaintances would not know who I was!


Munk wrote:
The solution to online bullying is better policing of fora, not some insistence on ‘real names’ in public.

It would be nice if Facebook et al. used some of their profits to monitor their site and kick out those who don’t behave themselves. The problem is that these people could easily set up a new account.

It is so easy to make provocative comments online (e.g. Facebook is for Fools or the National Lottery is a tax on stupidity) that it is hardly surprising that we have a problem with abusive comments made to or about individuals.

Anyone using social networks should understand the risk of abuse and that they can unsubscribe.



The examples of provocative comments are provided for illustration purposes only and do not necessarily represent my views. 🙂


“Anyone using social networks should understand the risk of abuse and that they can unsubscribe.”

Nail on head. No-one is forcing you to be “friends” with this person, it’s called “remove”


That’s true to a certain extent, but in the case of Facebook bullying, it’s mainly concerned with people setting up ‘hate’ pages that abuse specific individuals. You needn’t be their ‘Facebook friend’ for this to be done.