/ 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.

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.

Murk says:
28 July 2011

Facebook’s (to take your example) lack of a transparent complaints procedure (there is one, but it’s hidden away and not very responsive by accounts I’ve heard) would not be solved by ‘real names’. Indeed, ‘real names’ would be one more thing for facebook to police – with no hope of doing so accurately. I’d rather the resources went into a decent, responsive, complaints procedure.

I suggest that victims of abuse just unsubscribe and try to put Facebook behind them. The problem is that there is a lot of peer pressure to use social networks.

Peer pressure is a huge influence in our lives, at least up to middle-age. It might make an interesting Which? Conversation. I knew a student who spent a fairly miserable three years at university because he had an intolerance to alcohol and was rejected by his peers. I’ve recently been speaking to a vegetarian who is going to attend a hog roast as a result of peer pressure.

Murk says:
28 July 2011

Another person debating G+ insisting on ‘real names’, and she uses her real name (which is ‘Fake’ – hence she got hit by G+ being over-zealous)

Murk says:
28 July 2011

Caterina is quoted in der Spiegel (German, but readable via google translate)


mark says:
28 July 2011

This problem is not just limited to social networking sites. My local newspaper allows comments on its online version, and I often see potentially racist, homophobic or sexist comments on there.

My understanding was always that if the forum is unregulated, then the website publisher isn’t responsible for any comments left there. But if they regulate the site then they become responsible for those comments. I don’t know how true this is, but if it is true then presumably my aforementioned local newspaper doesn’t regulate in order to absolve itself of any responsibility. There’s a ‘report’ button you can click if you find a comment offensive and I have found if you do so then they do act, and remove it.

So it seems to me that the problem is not just a matter of commenters hiding behind anonymity, but also a case of website publishers not taking enough responsibility.

Posting under a pseudonym is merely protecting your privacy.

You want to post an opinion because you feel it is important to the thread, but potentially libellous and you could lose your job. In this situation, posting anon is the only way to go.

With regards to facebook hate groups, are you supposed to search facebook to look for hate pages about yourself?
Come on, cyber bullying only exists because of the person who is being bullied as they allow it. If you are being bullied by someone, remove them from your friends list, delete them, block them, inform the moderators, don’t search for hate pages about yourself, don’t be a moron, grow a pair, anything rather than cry and kill yourself.

I am amazed how people get so wrapped up in their online lives, you are in complete control of it, if it gets out of hand, it’s your own fault

Hi Arlene,

What I am saying is that “online” bullying is entirely controllable by yourself. In the workplace/family etc (ie in real life) it is different of course.

But bullying online, there are a million and one ways to stop it. If people continue to be bullied then the issue, I think, is with the moderators or with the person themselves.

FB has everything in place to ensure that you can protect yourself from this, but nothing can protect you from the psychological regression within yourself.

What the internet does is actually nurture these irrational fears within our psyche creating a mountain out of a molehill for people who don’t know how to just…unplug.

Acceptance by your peers is certainly a strong motivator to stay connected. When I was at school, being accepted by your peers meant that you had to play a sport, an instrument or the fool to be accepted by your peers. Nowadays, peer pressure is shallow and encourages nothing but conformity online

Hmm, you do make some valid points, Dean, but having worked for an online support site for young people I think you’re being pretty harsh.

Yes, there are often ways to deal with these things, but they can be quite difficult to fathom on some sites – Facebook’s privacy settings are pretty complex for a start.

I’ve dealt with minor cases of online bullying where, often, the person being bullied is doing all the right things (contacting mods, ignoring comments etc) – but on its own it doesn’t make it stop. Many sites have private messaging services that mods can’t see and many bullies will follow people around to different forums/sites etc. Plus, bullying is often very subtle and not always easily detected by others.

The self esteem/mental health issues that many young people face as a result of bullying can have a hugely negative impact – being told to ‘grow a pair’ is hugely insensitive to their situations.

Murk says:
28 July 2011

Hannah – quite so. However, this backs up the point. Allowing people to adopt a pseudonym, and share that with the people they choose – allows people to have a social circle separate from their ‘real’ name.

I absolutely agree with you on that point Murk, was only taking issue with the suggestion that these people are always able to stop the harassment.

Liese Stanley says:
14 November 2012

I think that the issue here is also with the companies that set up and run the websites. Recently I have had discussions with a local website for persistently removing content which is true and could be corroborated and posted under my real name. I have also recently had to practically issue a cease and desist notice to Streetlife.com before they would remove comments made by a poster using a pseudonym making untrue claims about me. This week a family member had the most awful comments made to them anonymously, threatening to kill, rape and sexually abuse them whilst using Ask fm. The police tell me that the company are Latvia based so difficult to deal with. So far my requests to that company with regard to their company policy and procedures have remained unanswered.
It is clear that some companies want the power with but are unwilling to accept the responsibility that comes with running a website. My own feeling is to target the websites promoters and advertisers in the hope that they will only work with websites that have a clear and effective moderation system. Sadly it seems that some irresponsible companies are only interested in financial gain rather than a social conscience.
I believe strongly in freedom of speech, have marched for people’s right to it but this current situation is quite simply not OK.
In a nutshell, no to anonymity, yes to pseudonyms if backed by a clear and effective ID confirmation policy, absolutely to real name posters.
Perhaps those found guilty to bullying, threats, unsubstantiated claims etc should be made to sit in a room with the victim and their family and repeat them word for word.