User Anonymity And Legal Accountability On Social Media

User anonymity on social platforms is rising in popularity and can raise a number of issues regarding legal accountability.

Last Updated March 2024

Per the Electronic Privacy Information Center, anonymity is a vital democratic concept, enabling individuals to participate in politics, disseminate ideas, express views, and practice spiritual beliefs without fearing public retaliation or government intervention. Maintaining anonymity online can be difficult, as the collection of identifying information is a common practice in social media and other digital industries, and the uses of that data, including redistribution to third parties, are often unclear. Digital surveillance can endanger the ability of a person to express themselves without someone knowing who they are and put them at risk of retaliation; on the other hand, one notable drawback of social media anonymity is the lack of accountability when freedom of expression is abused.

Understanding User Anonymity and Legal Accountability 

Maintaining anonymity online, such as on social media networks, involves hiding a person’s true identity when visiting websites, typically achieved through a combination of using a username and contact details that do not reveal the individual’s identity in conjunction with utilizing a proxy server or virtual private network (VPN) to conceal the visitor’s internet protocol (IP) address. According to the United States Institute of Peace, accountability concerns the structures, conventions, and processes holding individuals to account for the acts they commit. In a social media context, the concept of accountability refers to introducing systems that stop users from committing acts that violate the law and the platform’s terms of service. The effectiveness of these systems may be diminished when it is not possible to determine the user's identity.

What Are the Benefits of Anonymity on Social Media?

Social media anonymity provides users with the following advantages:

  • Encourages whistleblowing: Importantly, social media anonymity encourages those visiting these platforms to use them to become whistleblowers; this enables them to point out injustices in certain situations, such as in the workplace, without the danger of possible repercussions, like losing their job.
  • Boots freedom of expression: Anonymity online, including for individuals who utilize social media platforms, makes it easier and safer for people to express their opinions without the danger of social vilification. While this freedom from the consequences of social disapprobation can be a disadvantage if a user chooses to use these platforms to peddle misinformation or to engage in inflammatory rhetoric, it can also encourage people to contribute to meaningful online debates, critique governments, freely explore their personal views, and advocate for positive social causes without fear of harassment or even life-threatening ramifications.
  • Provides privacy and safety: Being anonymous on social media enables users to participate in discourse on social networking platforms while maintaining their privacy, preventing people that the users do not trust from having access to their personal information while also helping them to avoid targeted advertising. Anonymity can also help to prevent unwanted contact, adding another layer of protection to keep users safe from criminal activity. This “buffer” may be particularly beneficial for vulnerable individuals, such as children.

How Does Anonymity Negatively Affect Social Media?

When applied appropriately, anonymous social media use offers key benefits but it also entails multiple disadvantages, outlined below.

  • Safeguards those seeking to abuse or harm others: Some individuals feel that anonymity means they do not need to conform to social behavior conventions on these platforms, leading them to establish fake profiles and commit malicious and criminal acts without fearing retribution. In addition, criminal organizations and individuals sometimes exploit social media anonymity to impersonate another person to take advantage of others.
  • Causes distress to social media abuse victims: Victims of online abuse often find the experience highly distressing since the anonymous person causing the abuse can easily create another fake account and continue their attacks.
  • Prevents sanctions and prosecutions: Law enforcement agencies find it challenging to identify and prosecute those committing criminal activities on social media networks who are hiding behind a pseudonym. Moreover, social media websites can do little other than continuously attempt to detect, prevent, and remove accounts that breach their service terms. These strategies have limited efficacy for curtailing these breaches in the long term.

Meta Supports Anonymous Profiles (with Restrictions)

Instagram Anonymity

Instagram users have coined the term “Finsta”, short for “fake instagram.” A finsta is a private account shared with a small group of an individual’s closest friends. Users have embraced Finstas to share the not-so-glamourous aspects of their lives, unlike main profiles which show a curated, perfect-looking version of themselves. Finsta posts share unedited, candid photos of daily life or inside jokes with close friends.

As this trend has become increasingly popular, Meta has rolled out and tested various Instagram features to support sharing among users' closest friends without creating a separate, fake profile. Instagram’s “Close Friend” feature allows users to post stories, main feed posts, and reels to a curated list of friends chosen by the account holder. 

In January 2024, Instagram confirmed that it is testing a new feature called “Flipside,” which would allow users to “flip” to an alternative account that is connected with only a pre-designated group of people. As of February 2024, the feature is still being tested with a small group of live users and not yet available to the general public.

Facebook Anonymity - Multiple Profiles

As of September 2023, Facebook is allowing users to create up to four additional profiles linked to a main profile. This allows users to remain (somewhat) anonymous and feel free to explore interests, join groups, and engage with content they would not otherwise have with their main profile. A main Facebook profile will not show that a user has additional profiles, however, the additional profiles can be found through other means. For example, if a user has a secondary Facebook profile linked to their main Instagram account, a person may see the secondary profile via the “People you may know feature”. Facebook explains the various ways alternative profiles can be found, and encourages users to set privacy settings for each profile accordingly.

Authenticating Online Account Holders

Due to the drawbacks of online anonymity highlighted above, many digital services have introduced systems to tackle them. Many of these strategies rely on implementing increasingly stringent and complex procedures for authenticating accounts.

Contact Information Provision

Users typically have to provide identifying information, such as a phone number or email address, when signing up for a service. In many cases they must then respond to an activation request via one of these methods of contact. However, this is not always effective at preventing anonymous users from using digital platforms maliciously, as it is relatively straightforward to acquire a fake email address and phone number. Applications such as Burner, for example, provide means to false phone numbers to protect anonymity online.

Verification Processes

Other services have opted for more thorough account verification procedures to ensure that the user has included true personal information in their account. Examples include requesting users to upload identifying documentation, such as a driver’s license or passport, checking any provided identifying information to see whether it matches with details listed on public databases, and using third parties to verify a user’s personal information.

Anonymous Social Media Posts as Evidence

Collecting evidence from anonymous social media accounts is a sensitive and complex process that requires careful attention to legal, technical, and ethical considerations. Proper collection and documentation methods are essential to ensure the evidence's integrity and admissibility in legal contexts. Page Vault provides the necessary tools and team of experts to properly collect, document, and authenticate social media evidence while maintaining the chain of custody.


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