The murder of Sir David Amess has shocked us all in Westminster. It was an attack on our very system of democracy, killing an MP as he worked with the people in his constituency, seeking to help them and represent their concerns. It has made many of my parliamentary colleagues reflect on their own safety amid the abuse and threats they receive, online and offline, and reignited the debate of what we can do to stop it.
I currently chair the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, a group of expert MPs and Peers who have been tasked by the Government, House of Lords and House of Commons to examine plans to make the UK the “safest place in the world to be online”.
We’ve heard from campaigners, academics and former employees of big tech companies advising us on how we can best seize this once in a generation opportunity to hold social media giants to account. And one of the recurring themes throughout has been the dangers and benefits that come from online anonymity.
Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand couldn’t have been clearer in his testimony to our committee in September: football is “sliding backwards” because of the vile racist abuse online, for example seen after the Euros final this summer. I believe that Rio’s comments could apply just as well to the state of politics in our country.
Mounting abuse is a sickness in British political debate that social media is making worse. Members of Parliament shouldn’t have to live with being notified on social media of constant abuse and even death threats. Sports stars shouldn’t have to be confronted with racist ‘trending topics’ after a match. Women and LGBT+ users shouldn’t be cowed into silence, their freedom of speech taken from them, for fear of being attacked if they dare express an opinion.
I know for many readers that might seem counter-intuitive – surely anonymity offers a level of protection to vulnerable users? Several witnesses have indeed made that point to the committee. But we’ve also heard from witnesses such as Rio Ferdinand and William Perrin from the Carnegie UK wellbeing trust that anonymity offers a “disinhibition effect’” that means that users feel safer to hurl insults and hate-speech if they think there will be no consequences. If we allow this culture of abuse to become the norm, we cannot be surprised if it spills out into the real world.
I don’t think anonymity should be taken away. But if users exploit it to break hate-speech laws or those against incitement of violence, I think social media companies should have enough information on who they really are so that they are able to clearly identify them to the police. Not putting your real name to an account should give you no protection from an investigation into terrorist, racist, homophobic, or misogynistic messages you send.
We’ll be hearing a lot more over the coming weeks on this issue, in particular from Facebook whistleblowers Sophie Zhang and Frances Haugen, as well as from the tech platforms themselves. One thing is clear: we urgently need to make politics more human. And that needs to happen online as well as offline.