Lawmaker pushes online verification to combat disinformation

Mandatory ID checks for social media platforms could help fight propaganda, but experts worry about privacy tradeoffs.

people and data (Lightspring/

Should social media companies require ID checks from users? The idea is making the rounds on Capitol Hill as a way to combat disinformation, but experts worry the policy may not be effective and would come with significant privacy tradeoffs.

At an Oct. 22 House Judiciary Committee hearing on election security, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) asked representatives from the Department of Justice and FBI to weigh in on the role that online anonymity has played in fostering an online foreign influence campaign by Russia in 2016.

According to multiple reports, indictments and investigations, the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency, Guccifer 2.0 and other entities relied heavily on fake or stolen social media accounts — including those of Americans -- to imbue their covert propaganda campaigns with more domestic credibility. Subsequent takedowns by social media companies of separate campaigns originating in Russia, Iran and China have followed a similar pattern.

"Clearly our law enforcement agencies are working very hard to combat this disinformation, but it strikes me that at least one of the root causes is the reality of anonymous accounts in these social media engines," said Neguse.

He floated the possibility that piercing that veil of anonymity through universal verification -- essentially forcing users to register for social media accounts under their real identities -- could help address the problem.

"There's a lot of discussion as to whether or not universal verification -- as opposed to having to constantly be reactive working with these social media companies like Facebook -- that instead we could get at the root cause and it would eliminate so much of this disinformation and misinformation that has being perpetrated at the American public," said Neguse.

When asked if the DOJ had any recommendations for legislative proposals around the topic, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey demurred, saying anonymity online posed a "broad cybersecurity challenge" but that the issue was also "tricky" and the government largely relied on social media platforms to set standards around identification.

"How you address that I think it's very tricky: how you have verification or authenticity in a way that you know who is sending you a message is actually the person they claim to be," said Hickey. "At the moment, I'm not in a position to comment on legislation or propose it, what we're trying to do is where we see indications that someone isn't who they claim to be … and they tie to individuals that we're investigating, we'll try to tip the providers to it so they can pierce behind that anonymization."

Nikki Flores, deputy assistant director for counterterrorism at the FBI, told the panel that the bureau's foreign influence task force engages with social media companies to share real-time threat indicators and intelligence about ongoing disinformation campaigns on their platform but expressed a general reluctance for the bureau to moderate or police online behavior.

The notion of encouraging or legally requiring social media companies to verify anonymous users has surfaced in the past, but critics say it would likely come with a range of tradeoffs and questions around accuracy.

In a 2018 white paper on social media regulation, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said creating a duty to determine origin of posts or accounts would "go far in limiting the influence of bad actors outside the United States." However, he pushed back against the idea, warning that it would also likely come "at the cost of user privacy."

There is particular concern that such policies could also make it easier to identify and potentially harass individuals who prefer to maintain their privacy for reasons of personal safety.

"Mandatory identity verification is likely to arouse significant opposition from digital privacy groups and potentially from civil rights and human rights organizations who fear that such policies will harm at-risk populations," wrote Warner.

A similar policy implemented by Facebook in 2017 forced users to register accounts under their real names but was significantly altered after blowback from the public to provide a number of privacy exceptions for ethnic and sexual minorities as well as those who could credibly claim they would be targets for bullying or harassment.

Hannah Quay-de la Vallee, a senior technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told FCW that users hide or mask their identities online for a variety of reasons, ranging from the malicious to innocent. A universal verification policy could make it harder for foreign nations to conduct covert information operations, but it could also significantly curtail freedom of privacy or expression online.

"In any proposal like this you're going to have to consider how it's going to be either misused or what it's taking away from people," she said.

It's also not clear how much universal verification might help platforms and authorities further detect foreign influence campaigns online and the extent which the information could serve as a reliable measure of user origin.

Warner's paper noted that virtual private networks and other methods for masking IP addresses have become commonplace, making it "technically challenging" to determine user identity or location in a way that could lead to "a large number of false positives."

Quay-de la Vallee said that IP addresses are poor proxies for identity and it's not clear whether other methods could be responsibly implemented at scale. Requiring users to register under their legal names would require some transfer of legal documentation to verify and match identities, while going by Facebook's looser standard of registering under the name you use in everyday life could introduce many of the same problems that policymakers are currently grappling with.

"From a feasibility standpoint, there's certainly a question of how you're going to verify," said Quay-de la Vallee.