They might also have the option of using a pseudonym on their accounts. Most other platforms already allow for this, but “at present, Facebook still needs to know your real name,” says Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project, a Delhi-based NGO. However “there’s plenty of evidence that this harms vulnerable people,” she says. For example, a transgender woman who’s in the middle of transitioning, or a person in India who might be targeted because of their caste. Some research indicates that anonymity can actually lead to better behavior online.
In 2015 Facebook announced a compromise to its real-name policy to allow some members to request to use pseudonyms if they could show they have a “special circumstance”, but they would still need to verify their true identity. Campaign groups have criticized the step as it requires people who are potentially vulnerable to reveal intimate details of their personal lives.
A spokesperson for Facebook says that a real name is required on its site to prevent impersonation and identify misrepresentation: “Our authenticity policies are intended to create a safe environment where people can trust and hold one another accountable.”
Webb, however, believes this position is short-sighted.
“If you’re a white man in Silicon Valley or Silicon Roundabout in London, if you’ve never experienced anything from small microaggressions up to very severe violence throughout your life, then it’s not your natural tendency to think about those things when designing technologies ,” she says.
But women and minorities bear the brunt of online abuse. Overall, nearly six in 10 women worldwide experience some form of online violence, as a 2020 survey of more than 14,000 young women from 22 countries found.
Another study of more than 1,600 revenge porn cases revealed that 90% of victims were women.
And in 2020, a Pew Research Center poll found that women in the US were three times more likely than men to face sexual harassment online. Seven in 10 lesbian, gay or bisexual adults experienced abuse, compared with four in 10 straight adults. And more than half (54%) of black or Hispanic targets believed race was a driving factor for their harassment, versus 17% of white targets.
Because of these disparities, women and minorities are more likely to “think of edge cases” where groups of people might be overlooked, “foresee problems, and predict the ways in which technologies might be misused”, says Webb.
Had they been in charge of creating the internet, they may well have prioritised safety measures. And they might have done so from the start. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, for example, now ban revenge porn on their sites. But they did so in 2015 — a decade since their respective launches — after facing pressure from roughly leading female, says Chander. “That should have been the policy from the very start.”
None of the platforms the BBC contacted were willing to explain why it had taken 10 years to implement the policies.