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Scott Galloway@profgalloway

Published on September 30, 2022


In 1791 an obscure baroness and her daughters left Paris in a carriage headed west. Along the way, at Sainte-Menehould, their male servant went to change horses, and the town’s postmaster, Jean-Baptiste Drouet, thought he looked familiar. Drouet took out a banknote and confirmed, from the face printed on the back, the servant’s identity: King Louis XVI, who was supposed to be confined to his palace under revolutionary guard. Within hours, the “servant” was detained at Varennes. It was a costly ID: Two years later, an executioner would hold up the King’s recognizable head.


The ability to don a disguise and take on a new personality is in our DNA. It’s key to the plot in half of Shakespeare’s plays and the focus of my favorite holiday. Our nation’s liberty was won with the aid of anonymity. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote the Federalist Papers as “Publius,” Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine often wrote anonymously. On the flip side, state tracking of identity should not be taken lightly: See Nazi Germany, the Soviet Bloc, and modern China. In sum, identity can be weaponized.

In its early days, the Internet seemed like a haven for reinvention and anonymity. However, unchecked anonymity online is not working. The prevalence of anonymous accounts and bots has evolved into a sociopolitical scourge. It has threatened the integrity of our elections, divided our nation, and — as Jonathan Haidt put it — systematically made us more stupid. We should change course and require proof of identity online. Enforced ID won’t solve all these problems, but it would be a step in the right direction.


Binding ourselves to the administrative state sounds ominous — “Your papers please” — but verified identity is a cornerstone of modern life. In the two centuries since Louis XVI inadvertently created himself a photo ID, we have institutionalized identification. In 1803, Napoleon introduced internal ID cards for workers, which reduced the levels of trust needed to transact and employ, unleashing economic growth. Other nations followed suit. In World War II, fear of saboteurs and spies spurred heightened ID requirements. The rise of the administrative state in the years after rendered persistent identification essential. Today, driver’s licenses, passports, social security numbers, email addresses, and a hundred other pins and flags of personal identifiable information tag us like endangered species in a reserve.

Nearly 90% of the world’s population has some form of official identification, and we couldn’t function without it. Keeping dangerous drivers away from our highways, psychopaths off our airplanes, and 14-year-olds out of our bars makes us safer and lubricates economic growth. Nobody likes paying taxes, but automation makes it (reasonably) fair and efficient. When we moved to London this year, I rented our house in Miami to a family I never met. And it didn’t occur to me to do so … because the infrastructure of banks and agents and bureaucrats knew both our identities, and they’ll track either party down if we don’t live up to our end of the bargain. 

Yet our appreciation, and enforcement, of identification has not extended online. When the internet appeared, we took to anonymity like Louis fleeing to Varennes. We could be anyone, go anywhere, say and do anything.

Online freedom from institutionalized ID has virtues big and small. No interesting adult human is the same person in every context, so it’s best for all concerned that I don’t know my employees’ Reddit handles, and they don’t know mine. (Note: Don’t have one.) Online anonymity allows us to try on new identities or express our true ones — honest expression can be dangerous in many contexts and communities. On the geopolitical scale, protests against oppression, like we’re seeing right now from brave women in Iran, are often coordinated and leveraged using anonymous accounts.


That freedom has come at a cost, however, and the downside is both too great and not necessary. Similar to oil’s extraction and conversion to energy, converting attention to influence and purchases produces emissions. When users can hide behind pseudonymous usernames with anime profile pictures, many of the real-life disincentives for acting, well, shitty just disappear.

For decades, studies have demonstrated how crowds, anonymity, and obscurity unleash our worst instincts. There’s a term for the online version, the “online disinhibition effect.” Research shows anonymity is an accurate predictor of cyberbullying. It also causes a lack of empathy. In sum: When we don’t have guardrails or face consequences, we’re prone to being assholes. And the incentives of ad-driven media promote the most aggressive and uncivil among us to prominence, coarsening the discourse further and crowding out a key component of civilization’s progress: civility.

At least in the physical world, the number of assholes is capped at one per human. But thanks to technology — and its leadership, which hides behind the illusion of complexity — no limits exist online. A single human can be a virtually infinite number of masked bad actors. Russia has been using armies of bots to sow seeds of unrest in America for years. A recent New York Times article revealed how Putin’s regime used bots to pit Americans against one another in 2017. Pretending to be real Americans, Russian operatives posted aggressive and inflammatory tweets about the leadership of the nascent Women’s March movement. One message gained traction, targeting a movement co-chair with racial and religious abuse. It shattered the organization. Now China is getting in on the action.

Verifying online identity is not a new idea — it was actually the original plan. For years, Facebook demanded its users go by their “authentic name.” Google had a real-name policy for its (now abandoned) Google+ social network. What happened? Google’s policy was described as “evil,” “dangerous,” an “abuse of power.” Facebook’s was criticized for being racist and transphobic. These criticisms reflect real issues. The list of situations in which attaching your real name to a public online profile can be unreasonable or dangerous is extensive. But these concerns can also be addressed. The real reason the platforms opened the door to bots and fake accounts? Short-term profits. Fanning the flames of incivility generates traffic (at least at first), which means more inventory to sell to advertisers.

Now that our online world has been rendered a post-apocalyptic dystopia, with the living and the undead wandering amongst one another, the platforms claim that cleaning up the mess is just too difficult. The illusion of complexity is a bullshit rap performed by incumbents who want to protect and enhance their wealth. If Amazon can figure out a way to ensure that reviews for Lord of the Rings are from genuine viewers, shouldn’t we expect the same veracity re our elections, vaccines, and asset values?

There is broad public support for identity verification online; 80% of U.S. adults support verification for creating accounts. To be clear, there should be safe spaces and platforms where people can remain anonymous. We all have the right to send confidential messages to others, and to not have our data surveilled or used against us or without our knowledge. But when you mix real and fake accounts, and profit from the explosive results, you’re not pursuing anonymity … but fraud.


Under Know Your Customer (KYC) laws, certain companies (mostly in financial services) are required to obtain credentials that prove the identities of their customers. Providing the infrastructure for compliance with these laws is a growth industry. The average U.S. bank spends up to $130 to validate the identity of each new customer, and roughly $60 million a year — globally it’s a $1.4 billion market.

KYC isn’t perfect, as we learn every few years with another document dump detailing how the rich and powerful use shell companies and lax jurisdictions to hide their wealth. But the complexity of those schemes is testimony to the robustness of the system they seek to circumvent. Just compare traditional banking with the “anonymous” crypto version, so-called DeFi, which suffers from a massive fraud problem: Over $12 billion was stolen in 2021 alone. The success of KYC proves we can build secure systems to confirm that a real live human is attached to every online identity, and to provide recourse if that human breaks the law.

Platforms could employ KYC directly, requiring ID for every new signup, and limiting the number of accounts each person can control. But not everyone wants to have to trust Meta with their personal information, because the company’s data security team is about as reliable as Man U’s back four. (Sorry, had to.) Social media’s untrustworthiness is a business opportunity, however. The solution to confirming online identity is a profitable layer/middleman in waiting. Users could set up a single identity account with a trusted provider, who’d then vouch for the uniqueness of that user with any social media company or other online business where they open an account. Sort of a Clear for platforms.

First in line for this role is … still Big Tech. If you’ve signed up for any new website service lately, you’ve probably been offered the chance to “Sign in with Google” or “Sign in with Apple.” Even Meta is in on this, hoping you’ll forget about its track record. (It’s not going well.) But consumer trust is everything here, and these companies have revenue goals that depend on harvesting your data, selling you stuff, and manipulating you, not keeping your data safe.

If Big Tech can’t earn our collective trust such that we’re willing to give them the keys to our online identities, an alternative model is emerging. Pure-play identity companies that are financially incentivized to maintain security — not sell more ads or upgrade your phone. There are some startups working on this. Footprint, for example, is a security company that stores important user data and then verifies the information before the user is onboarded to other platforms. I.e., KYC.

Once an identity is affixed to an account, a platform could decide whether to permit pseudonyms. LinkedIn likely sees little value in anonymous accounts, and Facebook’s basic premise is in opposition to pseudonyms. Both brands would benefit from maintaining an environment where real people post under their real names (perhaps with exceptions for worthy cases). Twitter, on the other hand, might see the virtue in continued anonymity, and even allowing multiple accounts (a subscription perk, perhaps?), but it could wipe away its bot problem with KYC. A “no-anonymous account” Twitter competitor might also emerge.


Why would platforms do this? Even in the current environment, there’s a business case for fixing identity online. Bots and fake accounts are a cancer on these platforms, and they drive content creators away. The vast majority of Twitter users may not encounter the bot problem directly, since there is minimal engagement on most Tweets. But, having a reasonably large following, I can confirm the bot problem is severe. When I discuss crypto, Elon/Tesla, VC-backed firms’ valuations, or say anything Trump, an army of Joeybagofnumbers accounts floods my mentions. Most of it is noise, but some of the replies — clearly coordinated attacks from accounts wearing masks — are just troubling. Nobody would say this traif out loud. And I don’t endure a fraction of the grief others do.

We can dial up the incentives further by tying social media’s sacred 230 protections to robust KYC standards. Section 230 is the U.S. law that protects social media companies (any online publisher) from liability for user-created content. But an implicit assumption behind 230 is that the user, who remains liable for harms their content causes, can be brought to justice. Which is an empty assumption when the platform is handing out accounts to spoofed phone numbers and burner email accounts.

We can absolutely provide anonymity to good actors and should begin the process of carbon capture of the toxicity platforms emit under some adjacent cries of free speech or privacy. Last week, California passed the FLASH Act. Now you can be fined if you send a pic of your junk to someone who didn’t ask for it. Shouldn’t we also have (dis-) incentives for people pretending to be someone else (or thousands/millions of someone elses) or harassing or misleading people?

When you step up to the bar that is discourse in our society, you should be asked the same question that used to bother but now delights me: “ID, please.”

Life is so rich,

P.S. If you’re new to platform strategy, the Platform Strategy Sprint, created by Mohan Sawhney, is one of our best. Become a member to take it on your schedule, or watch the first lesson for free.



  1. Alan says:

    What you’re describing in the later sections is already a concept that’s being worked on. Decentralized/distributed ID is a technology that exists today and has several forms. Microsoft has a product called “verifiable credentials” within it’s Entra product group. This builds on top of the ION layer they created in collaboration with the identity foundation. Highly recommend following the Microsoft identity blogs, or reading out to leaders in this space like Pamela Dingle.

  2. Ravi says:

    Love your podcasts. On the topic of anonymity, have something I watched recently recommend to you and Kara. Has a distinctly Black Mirror feel but explores anonymity in an interesting way. Netflix original ‘Anon’.

  3. stefan mattlage says:

    I am a regular pivot follower

  4. Brent says:

    This has real merit. We have federal and provincial parties (Team Angry) in place now. Promoting libertarian messages convoy folks, and attacking government as a social asset. Abetted by anonymous attacks on Twitter- on advocates of Covid info and management, female reporters, and challenges to misinformation etc.

  5. Kaleberg says:

    I like the KYC idea, but I think we need something like post office boxes. They are anonymous but can be traced, and with KYC laws, the onus is put on the box manager. In some ways, it is like the notary system where identities have to be established but the details of that identity stop with the notary.

  6. Francois says:

    Small correction to “In 1791 …in a carriage headed west.”
    It’s actually headed east (Sainte-Menehould is located in the Grand Est region)

  7. KerryOwen says:

    So many people use The Russians as a justification for whatever point they’re trying to make… as if the US government isn’t manipulating social media for its own purposes (post a comment on Twitter questioning the need to wreck our economy for Ukraine and get swarmed by an army of Joe68248 types).
    Twitter already has a Blue Check verification and I follow no one else. You can do it also. Problem solved.

  8. Heidi says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. You point out the ill effects anonymity online have had on our society and democracy. Of course you can’t have all the answers, but at least you point to some possible solutions to explore. And yes, as other posters have pointed out, anonymity serves important purposes for the oppressed, but we must find some way to deter the bots & foreign entities from unraveling the fabric of society for malicious ends. Sadly so many commenters seem to miss the main points and instead use this as an opportunity to cry their many-times debunked election fraud claims; but I suppose they are just helping to make your point by providing more examples of how our country is getting hooked by the anonymity, bots & foreign players your article warns of.

  9. mark says:

    If id can be one’s own, then payment systems for creators should be friction-less.
    i think has something along those lines

  10. Craig Elimeliah says:

    “The Spectrum of Identity” and the commercial value of identity and diversity in the Metaverse (web3) presents all kinds of business, accessibility and security implications ranging from targeting to experiences and content perspectives… this kind of fluidity and consumer led environment is going to force businesses to completely revamp their marketing and relationship stacks to follow the customer rather than try and lead or drive them into the funnel. Consumers can now show up as they wish and brands will have to address them as such. I would push on the word anonymity and rather say fluidity, a much more dynamic state of identity that puts control in the hands of the consumer to engage in their terms. The new cost of engagement will be meeting them where they are and how they want. Brands have always had a hard time shifting that control, now they may no longer have a choice.

  11. Bozan says:

    You really should look into self-sovereign id

  12. Josh says:

    If you were Chinese in China you couldn’t write this blog without the threat of being taken away, because you don’t have the liberty to speak freely.

    And, as you wrote, “Our nation’s liberty was won with the aid of anonymity. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote the Federalist Papers as “Publius,” Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine often wrote anonymously. ”

    You have the freedom to write what you write because of how our liberty was won with the aid of anonymity. Doesn’t your own quote disqualify the rest of your post? I think you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater on this topic.

    • Fred Garvin says:

      Completely agree. For many people, particularly the marginalized and most vulnerable, the only way they can feel comfortable to speak at all is if they do so anonymously. Requiring speakers to identify themselves only leads to oppression and the effective silencing of the minority. Just a horribly shortsighted take, Scott.

    • Jeebs says:

      He is MOST DEFINITELY throwing out the baby with the bath water. Such shortsightedness is breathtaking.

  13. Victor Feitosa says:

    Great article and discussion. One concept that you could have added is the notion of decentralized identity, which, at a very high-level, tries to solve both individual and organizational problems by providing more control, transparency and security. Also, blockchain, as a distributed public ledger, is an interesting enabler for the future of identity in the internet.

  14. bartb says:

    Great post! Lots of insights to review and think about! Would love your take on Voter ID but that will probably never happen (too politically charged even for you). IMHO: as long as we permit “ballot harvesting” and mail drops, no Republican will ever hold national office again in our life time (just my 2 cents)

  15. ralph says:

    Perhaps require people who comment to use first and last names, if not state of resident. Rosenberg from Iowa. Scott, your writing is excellent; social media was never attached to any ethical guardrails. I used to give talks that technology was moving faster than ethical norms, or just society norms. Identifying is part of this lagging problem. Keep on writing.

  16. Jurgen Alan says:

    Scott ! as always – great read ! and i am absolutley for ID PLEASE ! – AND just a side note – Man -u’s back four comment ! it is only one very expensive back line issue -the rest are great !!!

  17. hao says:

    would zero knowledge proof as backbone technology be able to solve that I am who I am issue without jeopardizing the privacy from those mega central platforms?

  18. Ari Kahn says:


    Stellar article and insights.

    The Internet has an Identity Crises. Usernames and passwords have to go.

    Star IAM (Identity Access Management) breakthrough advance in signaling delivers millisecond true and trusted anonymous (cryptographic) cellular ID and can instantly pinpoint BOTS with precision point accuracy @ scale.

    *IAM is 100% virtual platform agnostic and works on any phone out the box. Further it is the only system of its kind that has native micro cellular charging capability built into the Identity and Access Protocol permitting you to authentically earn pennies for your thoughts (“Deomocracy dies behind the Paywall” — Elon Musk).

    This frictionless and seamless IAM service can reshape and recalibrate the Internet at its core and address the last millimeter in Cybersecurity.

    Love to demo this in action.
    In the words of a passed mentor:

    “It’s insanely great!”.


  19. John says:

    Completely disagree with this – the only way you can get necessary change and renewal of a system is for educated insiders to be able to challenge current thinking anonymously and then be able to reach a wide audience. The only way you can do this is through free speech, anonymity online and platforms that don’t manipulate search results. Otherwise, you end up with a decaying system that can’t reform itself, just like ancien regime France. A major reason that the system failed in that case was because Louis XIV enforced a strict code of etiquette on the formerly rude and free-speaking aristocracy, which in the end so enfeebled it that it was unable to reform itself a hundred years later.

  20. Joe says:

    Seems a no brainer, but the right hates the idea of a national ID and the left hates the idea of an ID needed to vote. Nutty on both sides.

    • Jim says:

      The left has never opposed voters identifying themselves. We opposed adding id requirements whose sole purpose is to disenfranchise groups (which has always been the point of photo ID laws). In-person vote fraud has always been vanishingly small, and nearly all recent cases were conservatives who listened to right wing lies about how easy it would be to vote twice (it isn’t).

  21. Vs says:

    How about voter ID?

  22. Jeff says:

    Certainly unverified identity is a threat to the democratic process. Identity mustn’t be fungible. BTW, best quote ever: “ At least in the physical world, the number of assholes is capped at one per human. But thanks to technology — and its leadership, which hides behind the illusion of complexity — no limits exist online. A single human can be a virtually infinite number of masked bad actors.”

  23. John says:

    HIPAA to protect patient information – how does that fit into this discussion? Would the community be better served during a pandemic if a letter U for un-vaccinated is stamped in indelible ink of foreheads of freedom fighters but can be chemically removed upon vaccination or when the pandemic ends? Or opposite, a V to show that a person is community minded as well as wanting to live long and well. Maybe end up with a series of letters to speed up understanding of a person in a physical setting. The Scarlett Letter could make speed dating more efficient. Society is already gone down the path of referencing people as orientations – LGBTQIA+, plus the pronoun thing that at my senior age I am still puzzling over why and when and how to use in life. Are these considered IDs?

  24. Tom says:

    Great post! Voter ID should be mandatory but the left insists it is racist and discriminatory. SMH.

  25. Jason says:

    I assume, Scott, that you’d be in favor of ID for something as crucial as voting?

  26. Ric says:

    Another great post… love it

  27. Eldridge says:

    Love the nuance here! I’m concerned that regarding those real world danger examples the follow up was “these concerns can also be addressed.” Too often we in tech have been guilty of rolling out incomplete solutions which hurt marginalized people and trying to fix it once it’s out in the wild.

    A *significant* reason privacy is crucial is we don’t know how the data will be used. *No one* does. Privacy advocates warned against posting photos on Facebook but even the most cautious couldn’t have warned us that these would eventually lead to deepfake porn of people.

    Pseudonymity is a great way to prevent encroachment by other *individuals* but not from our governments. A year ago people could safely discuss medical info which today may land them charges as SCOTUS removes previously established rights. What topics can we safely discuss today that will be dangerous after the *next* SCOTUS opinion? The US and my state can legally unmask me.

    The bot&fraud problem is real but the nuance is crucial. When the *process* of solving a problem can directly harm people, especially marginalized people, we must be cautious. Too much confidence in our ability to solve problems in something we’re in the midst of deploying is how we get Instagram and teen depression in young women.

    If you’ll forgive the blatant blogspam, I’ve shared my experience in this space in more detail here:

  28. C Cook says:

    Nearly ALL Democracies require an ID to vote. You are who you say you are, and can only vote once.
    Yet the ‘educated’ and ‘moral’ woke/left/DNC in the US claim that verification for voting, is ‘racist’. Harvesting signatures on pre-filled out ballots is what ‘community organizers’ do.
    Spoofing and bots have been institutionalized here. No doubt Saul Alinski is smiling now.

    • David says:

      You think the right-wing is bad blocking votes now? Can you imagine the hoops people (I.e. POC) would need to jump through to get a voter ID. Just one more opportunity to deny an application.

  29. Andrew Wilshire says:

    Great piece, I’ve been pondering this exact thought about the need for real identity for the major platforms and the journey financial institutions went on with KYC. Why not put a threshold in place to say if a platform has over 1 million users, it must require proof of physical identity. Just need legislation in the US and EU – and similar to what we saw with GDPR would propagate the change to other markets.

    • Ari Kahn says:


      Stellar article.

      Star IAM (Identity Access Management) breakthrough advance in signaling delivers millisecond true and trusted anonymous (cryptographic) cellular ID and can instantly pinpoint BOTS with precision point accuracy @ scale.

      *IAM is 100% virtual platform agnostic and works on any phone out the box. Further it is the only system of its kind that has native micro cellular charging capability built into the Identity and Access Protocol permitting you to authentically earn pennies for your thoughts (“Deomocracy dies behind the Paywall” — Elon Musk).

      This frictionless and seamless IAM service can reshape and recalibrate the Internet at its core and address the last millimeter in Cybersecurity.

      The Internet has an Identity Crises. Usernames and passwords have to go.

      Love to demo this in action.
      In the words of a passed mentor:

      “It’s insanely great!”.


  30. Doug says:

    This post is a history lesson and full of insights on technology, social behaviour and commerce. I will have to read it again because there is so much here to unpack. Thanks, Professor Scott!

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