After facing considerable blowback, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley is walking back her declaration that all people should be required to verify their identities to use social media platforms, after previously calling anonymous accounts a “national security threat.”
Haley, a former U.N. ambassador and former governor of South Carolina, said last week that, if she is elected president, social media companies would be required to authenticate people’s identity before allowing them to comment.
“We’re going to say that they have to make sure every person on social media is verified … everybody gets a verifiable sign so that we know exactly who they are,” Haley said in a telephone town hall with Iowa caucus-goers Friday. “What that will do is it will eliminate every Russian bot, Iranian bot and Chinese bot that’s spreading all of this misinformation, because … it is the cheapest form of warfare for them.”
Haley, who later said similar things on Fox News, also claimed that eliminating anonymity would lead to more-civil discourse online among social media users.
“They’re going to start to be more accountable because they know their family and their pastor is going to see it, and it’s going to be more civilized,” she said.
On Wednesday, Haley dialed back her remarks, telling CNBC she thinks that “life would be more civil” if people were prohibited from posting anonymously but that anonymous accounts would still be allowed for American citizens.
“I don’t mind anonymous American people having free speech,” Haley told the network. “What I don’t like is anonymous Russians and Chinese and Iranians having free speech.”
A representative for Haley’s campaign reiterated Wednesday that Americans have a right to free speech.
“What Nikki doesn’t support is letting the Chinese and Iranians create anonymous accounts to spread chaos and anti-American filth among our people,” the representative said. “They’re doing that as we speak and it’s a national security threat. Social media companies have to do a way better job policing that. Clearly, Ron DeSantis wants to let Chinese propaganda machines run wild on social media without any restrictions.”
Haley faced immediate criticism over the proposal from her Republican primary opponents. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has clashed with Haley throughout the primary over tech issues, noted that several of the Founding Fathers had written the Federalist Papers under a pseudonym. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) also cited the Federalist Papers and blasted Haley’s idea as “dangerous and unconstitutional.”
“It will be dead on arrival in my administration,” DeSantis wrote on X, formerly Twitter. On Wednesday, DeSantis told conservative political commentator Glenn Beck that he thought Haley’s plan would pave the way for a “social credit system” akin to one in China.
“Forcing disclosure of names and registration, that’s what China has done. China did that recently,” DeSantis said. “That is totally inappropriate for the United States of America.”
That stance by Haley put her at odds with former president Donald Trump and other leading figures in the Republican Party who have for years shown no problem promoting comments from anonymous social media accounts — nor been averse to using divisive and inflammatory comments under their own names. It also came as Haley has risen in recent polls and threatened to overtake DeSantis as the leading alternative Republican candidate to Trump, particularly after former vice president Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) suspended their campaigns.
The proposal that all social media users be verified is not new — and was even put forth by Trump in 2013, according to a tweet that a DeSantis surrogate resurfaced after Haley’s remarks.
“It should be mandatory that all haters and losers use their real name or identification when tweeting — they will no longer be so brave!” Trump wrote then, before he formally entered politics.
A representative for Trump’s reelection campaign did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday or questions about whether Trump still believes that. In the decade since that was posted, of course, Trump was elected president, was banned from the site formerly known as Twitter and has started his own social media platform, Truth Social, which bills itself as “America’s ‘Big Tent’ [that] encourages an open, free, and honest global conversation.”
Haley’s remarks in the telephone town hall last week were first prompted by a woman who expressed concern about what she called “horrendous misinformation” about Ukraine that Ramaswamy spread at the last GOP debate.
“But if you look at what Ramaswamy is saying, and what a lot of Americans are saying, where are they getting this misinformation from? They’re getting it from social media,” Haley responded then, calling for a ban on TikTok.
Haley blamed Russia, Iran, China and North Korea for a flood of misinformation. She declared that, as president, one of the first things she would do is demand social media companies “make all of their algorithms transparent.” She then said she would prohibit anonymous accounts as a way of cracking down on misinformation.
Mary Anne Franks, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said that the U.S. government trying to restrict anonymous speech would be unconstitutional but that private companies have the right to establish terms of service for their products and could ban anonymous speech.
“If Haley is suggesting that the government can or should require verification of social media users, that would be at odds with long-standing and robust First Amendment protections for anonymous speech,” said Franks, who studies intellectual property, technology and civil rights law. “That constitutional protection applies only to government actors, however, so if Haley is instead suggesting that social media platforms themselves could or should require their users to be identifiable, this would not violate the First Amendment — though it would have implications for free speech more generally.”
Cracking down on anonymity also could harm vulnerable individuals, including whistleblowers, political dissidents and victims of domestic violence, said David Greene, director of civil liberties at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates digital privacy and free speech.
“For these individuals and the organizations that support them, secure anonymity is critical. It may literally save lives,” Greene said. “Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse.”
The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech, including online speech, is protected by the First Amendment, even if it results in misinformation. In September, judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that Biden administration officials probably violated the First Amendment by encouraging tech companies to remove or suppress misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and about the 2020 election results.
Courtney Radsch, director of the Center for Journalism and Liberty at the Open Markets Institute, a political economy think tank that advocates press freedom, warned that Haley’s proposal would only encourage giant tech companies to collect more data about their users.
“We want them to collect even more data and personally identifiable data on Americans? That doesn’t make any sense,” Radsch said.
On top of that, Radsch said, getting rid of anonymity for individual users would do little to solve other pressing issues posed by social media platforms with loosely enforced standards for disinformation and online harassment.
“Online harassment is not going to be solved by this,” Radsch said. “People are perfectly willing to be terrible to each other using their real names.”