Why Are People Anonymous on Twitter?
And why I am.

Why are People Anonymous on Twitter - some arguments for and against

The question of why are people anonymous on Twitter has recently been more frequently discussed in the public domain. It will come as no surprise that “Fibro Jedi” is not my real name. It’s not even a registered company name, it’s just how I represent myself online. But it means my style of account is caught in the crossfire. Being a gamer, blogger and chronic pain fighter, I find many of my followers have @handles – and display names – that are clearly not real names. Accounts are set up with a character’s name, or centering around a hobby or an interest – and still others represent entire communities. So why do I have an anonymous account? Why is that seen as an issue and can we actually address people’s concerns without sacrificing something else along the way?

Abuse from Anonymous Twitter Accounts

Presenting the awful realities first, it is obvious that the use of non-identifiable social media profiles is open to abuse. Some that misuse such accounts want to get away with that which would otherwise be almost, if not actually, criminal behaviour.

Examples from the News

It seems like we do not have to wait long for the next report of someone being “verbally” abused online.

Racism

standard.co.uk report on football racism by Anonymous Twitter Accounts
There was a case in 2021 where Twitter was called to crack down on Anons after a racist incident in a football (“soccer”) game here in the UKexlink. Half way through 2022, this issue still ongoingexlink.

And, at the start of the COVID pandemic, racism against Chinese peopleexlink became prevalent.

Sexism

Amnesty.org article on Twitter being Toxic for Women
To show this isn’t a new phenomenon, a 2018 report by Amnesty International branded Twitter as a “Toxic Place for Women”.exlink.

And for balance, albeit an older study, showed that about half of misogynistic tweets came from womenexlink.

Twitter Lists

CNBC Article: How Trolls use Twitter Lists for Abuse
It was foundexlink that Twitter lists were used to target and harass people people.

Incidentally, my Mum often made snide remarks about men being inferior, inadequate and incapable. But she was absolutely not sexist – in her opinion. And I won’t repeat what she said about the one trans person she worked with once. Sexism can work in multiple directions, in the same way that racism can work against anyone of any race in the world.

Misuse of Anonymous Accounts

Not all misuse of Anonymous accounts fall under the “abuse” category. However, they can still be used with bad intention: political messaging, imitation (without declaring it’s a parody account), spreading an agenda you want to hide from your “public self”.

  • Once, several accounts were set upexlink under the name of a UK MP (Member of Parliament), causing short-term confusion over who was real. The actually-genuine MP did not have the famous blue tick.
  • In 2021, a columnist was sackedexlink over having a role in a fake Twitter account. The issue wasn’t that he had views on things – but that he had a “hidden” agenda. This activity was done anonymously and led to a lack of transparency of his “real self”.

Abusers Take Other Routes

Reuters: Twitter's @jack hacked in 2019 to post racist tweets
If you think banning anonymous accounts would solve the problem – and I would love to agree with you – sadly, you’re underestimating how low online abusers will go. In 2019, the then-CEO of Twitter, @jack, had his account hackedexlink to spread racist messages.

Even the would-be purchaser of Twitter only had to tweetexlink (← link goes to a report about it, not the tweet itself. I’m not going to poliferate the message) what he had in his head in the moment to spread a message that marginalised and sexualised women.

Sadly, people do not need anonymity to be hateful. Some may use that tool, though.

Terminology Doesn’t Help

I once wrote down (not on Twitter): “Criminals break the law, politicians breach regulations”. They’re the same thing, right? Well, social media has spawned its own terms that downplay the harm caused by written abuse.

e.g. “I’m not harassing, I’m just trolling them.”

That’s the same thing. We need to call it what it is. It’s hateful and abusive. “Trolling” is not acceptable behaviour and may, in fact, be illegal even before taking the consideration of the mental health impact of said behaviour.


What’s Twitter’s Policy?

You can view their “Hateful Conduct Policyexlink” if you like. I skipped past the section on “encouraging harm or direct threats” section because I think, generally, those can be reported to local authorities. The issue lies in the use of racist/sexist/other-ist tweets – where users can get away with it.

Hateful Tweets Policy

Twitter’s policy on this kind of behaviour is

We prohibit targeting others with repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category. This includes targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals. We also prohibit the dehumanization of a group of people based on their religion, caste, age, disability, serious disease, national origin, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

All making sense, yes?
The top of Twitter's Hateful Conduct Policy

Will Twitter Take Action?

In some cases, such as (but not limited to) severe, repetitive usage of slurs, epithets, or racist/sexist tropes where the primary intent is to harass or intimidate others, we may require Tweet removal. In other cases, such as (but not limited to) moderate, isolated usage where the primary intent is to harass or intimidate others, we may limit Tweet visibility as further described below.
(Emphasis mine)

Wait, what? If a Twitter user (Anonymous or otherwise) has a primary intention of harrassing or intimidating then there’s a chance they may require (but not enforce) tweet removal.

Worse, so long as your abuse is “moderate” – but still with the same intention – they’ll just deemphasise those messages. There is no wonder “isms” get such an easy ride. So long as you’re not directly threatening – or encouraging others to directly threaten – then great.


Why Not Use a Real Name?

Ignoring the names of companies and those we expect to use their actual names (e.g. “public figures”), you may ask why people shouldn’t just use their real names. After all, if we did then there would be no question of why people are anonymous on Twitter or other social platforms.

The Real Name Fallacy

The Coral Project: The Real Name Fallacy
In a really interesting, research-based article, the Coral Project published The Real Name Fallacyexlink. It references reasons why, as a digital world, we grew to believe anonymity was an issue. Yet it lists nine reasons why it was largely irrelevant, some of which are (paraphrased):

  • About half of harassment cases in the USA (in a given study) involved the victim knowing their attacker.
  • Online harassment reflects what goes on in society at large, making that the issue, not the online presence.
  • Giving personally-identifiable information makes people more at risk of online abuse, not less.
  • Social norms can be changed regardless of whether so-called “real names” are revealed or not.

What’s a Real Name?

One of my Patreon Crew actually made an interesting point about “real names”:

As a trans person, what’s my “real” name? The one on my ID card, that my parents gave me? That’s not my real name. That’s just the name my parents keep on calling me, and that makes it easier for me to work with bureaucracy. That’s not the name I call myself or what my friends call me, which is Ether, which is the name that’s everywhere where I am online.

Though there was an exception:

When I have to ask questions on really mainstream forums– and/or I don’t want trolls to bother me and follow me all the way to Twitter, etc– I will absolutely use another name!

Ether

Which shows that, unfortunately, the onus is on someone who could be a victim from becoming one. But it is important that we are aware of how interconnected our various online profiles can be and to take necessary precautions.


Why Are People Anonymous on Twitter?

With all I have laid out above, I am not saying we should stop people having anonymous Twitter accounts – or pseudonyms. Man, think of authors or actors, two groups where pseudonyms may well be their “real name”, even if their official documents say something different! There are real reasons why such social profiles can be useful.

Avoiding Initial (Pre/Mis)conceptions

I’ll come to my reasons very shortly, but this is one of the key ones. I am myself on Twitter – what I post comes from who I am. I am honest about my mental state, where I may struggle to talk to a church person about it. I can share things that are important to me, or I enjoy, without being worried someone from my past may rock up to judge me. I don’t put on a fake persona, but I also don’t have to worry about what people may think of me based on how I look or from doing an internet search for my name.

Victims May Need Anonymous Accounts

While I have no doubt that “real name” accounts are the target of abuse by trolls (aka ‘verbal abusers’), it’s rarely phrased that it’s the very fact that their real name is out there that makes them open to attack. Don’t get me wrong, public figures should be identifiable for accountability – and some people’s “brands” may well be their name too. But the moment you say the way to reduce abuse is to cut out anonymous accounts, there is the possible result that more people are vulnerable to that abuse.

Some victims of online harrassment or threats may feel their real name works better for their needs. Others, however, may just need to “vent into the void” to have a safe outlet, raise awareness and show support for others in a similar situation to theirs.

In the football racism article above, Twitter responded saying:

…many of the first voices to speak out on societal wrongdoings, have done so behind some degree of pseudonymity – once they do, their experience can encourage others to do the same, knowing they don’t have to put their name to their experience…


Anonymous Does Not (necessarily) Mean Fake

BBC Article about Fake Twitter Accounts
Even with a certain EM’s hope of buying Twitter, the issue does not seem to be anonymous Twitter accounts, but fake ones. The hint here is that a real person needs to be behind the account, not just a machine, or AI.

Anonymous and Free Speech

I’m not here, nor on Twitter to get political. But it’s hardly a secret that a lot of politics takes place on that platform. And by “politics”, I don’t simply mean local or national party or government issues. It could be workplace relations, calling out malpractice in an industry or a war – the list goes on. I can’t imagine a world where there is no safe place to express these views – and the digital space may be the only safe place for some in various parts of the world. Or to quote Twitter:

“Pseudonymity has been a vital tool for speaking out in oppressive regimes, it is no less critical in democratic societies. Pseudonymity may be used to explore your identity, to find support as victims of crimes, or to highlight issues faced by vulnerable communities.”

Free Speech isn’t the right to be abusive, abuse isn’t Free Speech.

People don’t need anonymity to be horrible, or racist, or sexist. Even in school, people that bullied me did so with friends watching on. It made them look/feel more powerful, I guess – certainly more than if they’d just done it alone.


Why Am I Anonymous on Twitter?

While “why are people anonymous on Twitter?” may well be okay for general research, nothing helps more than someone giving you their reasons. Well, I am pseudonym-ous on the platform and I have a few that I’m happy to share.

My First Safe Space

My first @FibroJedi Tweet

When I first set up @FibroJediexlink, I was running a business and used my then real-name account for it. I don’t have that account now, FYI.

But when people followed my primary account expecting content of a certain theme, when I interrupted that by talking of Fibromyalgia symptoms, depression and anxiety it resulted in lower engagement rates.

Having the pseudonym gave me a “voice in the void” which I desperately needed.

Free to be Me

I actually feel freer to be who I am without my real face or name splashed all over the public Twitter domain.

Freedom from the Past

One of my LOTRO characters running.
I don’t mean that in a creepy way, or like I have a dubious criminal history. What I mean is, I don’t want people I used to know finding me. A simple example is this: I used to post personal things onto my personal Facebook feed. What I discovered was that people would then talk to my Dad (and my Mum when she was alive) behind my back. I then got a “talking to” about what I had posted from my parents.

Even now, if you were to google my name, it auto-suggests a location (albeit now, an inaccurate one). And I have had no personal, public and active presence under my real name for 4-5 years now. My FB privacy settings are maxed.

Being anonymous on Twitter means if I don’t want people I know/knew to find me, then they won’t.

Safe for my Family

I can share my life without risking my wife’s or daughter’s identity being made public where they do not want it to be.


I refer to my daughter as “NJ” (never with photos of her), so I can share some of the parenting journey. Anonymous for me protects her too.


Is there an Actual Solution?

This blog says that it’s usually a “white dude” who suggests this as the solution:

  • Users to Submit ID
  • People to use their real names

I’ve already given my opinion on why “real names” won’t stop abusive people being abusive. Now, as a (non-racist, pro-women, pro-equality) “white dude” I’m not sure why the Submit ID proposal is called a white person’s idea. That said, I personally would be happy to provide proof to Twitter of who I am, while retaining the right not to use my real name. If I thought it would change things, which I don’t.

Why You Might Not Want to Submit ID

But there are plenty of reasons people would not want to submit their ID:

  • The idea assumes that every Twitter user everywhere in the world has an ID. Should people denied or lacking an ID be deprived of a voice in digital space?
  • If you disagree with your government (and haven’t we all, at some point?) or another country’s system, the last thing you want is for said authority to get hold of your ID. And they could have the right to request/demand that information too. Then they’re knocking on your door.
  • Social Media companies must be defending themselves every second of every day from attempts to hack their systems. Just imagine how much more valuable that data would be if it was genuinely traceable to real people’s identities.
  • What if an abuser was able to get hold of someone’s personal information? Where before they would be sending hateful remarks behind their computer or device, then there would be no limit. Online safety is vital, but once personal safety is at risk, we have greater reasons to be worried.
  • And lastly, we are assuming that all IDs submitted have been acquired legitimately. A fake Twitter account with a faked ID would be no more safe – except for those intent on abusing the system and its users.



So What Can Be Done?

The reason nothing’s changed – or nothing has seemed to change is that, probably, the status quo is the best balance. For now, at least. To protect actual victims, and potential future ones, may involve processes that could, in fact, make them more accessible and vulnerable. So it seems to me that each platform’s removal of abuse as soon as possible is about the closest we’re going to get without putting others at risk. So what can we do?

Protect Ourselves

It should not be down to victims (actual, or potential) to have to protect themselves. But it’s been this way for physical abuse for a long time. CS spray, personal alarms, phone apps showing your family where you are, being careful where you go and when – all are on us to protect ourselves. People shouldn’t have to fear walking home at night, but they do – and sadly, with good reason.

Report It

The top of Twitter's Report form
Users need to report abuse – to Twitter and to the relevant authorities if a crime may have been committed. Heck “disturbing the peace” is a crime in the UK, so persistent -isms against you certainly should be reportable.

Whether you think reporting to Twitter works or does not – it cannot work if you do not report it. So Report It.

Block It

Block and Mute things on Twitter
Twitter has given us tools to block accounts and keywords among other privacy settingsexlink. If we expect social media companies to take action against such themes and people, then so should we. I’ve had certain terms blocked on Twitter for some time. It doesn’t stop those themes being abused, of course, but it lowers the likelihood that I become a victim of those views.

Call It

Call out discrimination and abuse for what it is. “Trolling” is too kind a word. If someone is “pestering”, it’s harassment. If a Twitter user makes comments about “all women” or “all men”, call it out as #EverydaySexism.

If an account – anonymous or otherwise – objectifies men, women or others – then it’s sexism.

If it’s a slur or derogatory term about any race, then it’s racism. Let’s not mess around with dumbing down reality.

Protect Others

But it’s also for us to help protect others and make sure we don’t accidentally make other uncomfortable.

Even when I was at Uni (*mumble* years ago), we had workshop on personal safety. In that they said, if you’re heading home on your own or with friends and you end up behind someone on the path, cross over the road to continue your journey. Why? So that the person ahead did not get scared by your innocent return home. Friends watch out for friends – and Twitter users should have the backs of other Twitter users.

TL;DR Call Out Abuse, But Be Careful What You Wish For

What the world needs is a crack-down and a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination and amplification of messages that dehumanise people because of who they are. And I mean “Zero Tolerance”. Twitter’s current allowance of “moderate” potentially-abusive behaviour is not okay. All such tweets should be deleted and the user formally warned. I won’t say “One strike and out,” because personal reform takes time. But two warnings, then out on the third, seems fair.

As I said, abusive tweets are not “free speech”, and the right to free speech does not equate to the right to harass or abuse others from your device.

However, banning Anonymous accounts won’t, in my opinion, achieve the reduction of abuse we (including myself) would like to see. If a victim (real or potential) is forced to share their real information, I think that will make them more vulnerable, not less. For now, all we can do is watch out for our friends, call abuse for what it is and report it. And above all, think before you tweet. If what you’re about to say tears someone down, even by a fraction, don’t publish it. I can only expect respect if I first show it to the people I talk to. Remember, #StaySafe and #BeKind.


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