The world of online abuse is dark – it is vital the Online Safety Bill returns soon
The Online Safety Bill aims to tackle harmful content online
In 2020 I found myself at the centre of a social media storm. My team noticed an increased number of abusive comments, tweets and messages. This was not caused by a position I had taken or a view I had expressed – it was due to the fact I had been lucky enough to have a baby.
Trolls and abusers do not need an excuse for their attacks. They barely need a trigger. On a routine basis, people are abused, harassed and assaulted online because of their gender, skin colour, physical appearance, race, creed, views and sometimes just because another user points the trolls towards the victim of the day.
The harm this is causing cannot be overstated. Trolling and pile-ons (coordinated online attacks against individuals) have been linked to increased incidences of depression, anxiety and suicide, especially amongst young teens. I know from my own experiences just how dark and depressing the world of online abuse can be.
I believe increased verification will play a part in stemming the flow of abuse and misinformation online
Debate is also being stifled. A survey by the think tank Compassion in Politics with Opinium found that 27 per cent of social media users had been put off posting online for fear of being bullied or harassed. I know many colleagues in Parliament are similarly hesitant about expressing their views online. Increasingly, I believe that violence online is fuelling bad behaviour in person.
We cannot ignore people being routinely attacked, dehumanised and debased in the digital world. The public strongly want legislators to act to try to reduce the toxicity online and strive for more compassion, inclusion and cooperation.
This is why I believe that the Online Safety Bill is such a significant piece of legislation. It provides an opportunity to improve discourse on social media while also protecting freedom of speech.
At the time of writing, the bill has been postponed. I hope that the bill will soon return to Parliament so that we can continue the vital work of scrutinising, strengthening and enhancing the legislation.
Specifically, I have campaigned to address the damage that can be caused by anonymous accounts. A balanced approach is required here. Some groups – for instance the LGBTIQA+ community, abuse survivors, whistle-blowers and refugees – choose to remain anonymous online in order to protect their identity. Their ability to be anonymous should not therefore be removed. Yet we can take steps with the bill that recognises anonymous social media accounts remain the largest source of abuse and misinformation online. They give malicious individuals and organisations a belief they can act with impunity.
That is why I, and many other parliamentarians, want to see social media companies required to offer their users the right to gain a “verified” status with the option to filter out from news feeds and timelines all of those users who are “unverified”. Verification options are already available for famous people, so why not everybody? I believe increased verification will play a part in stemming the flow of abuse and misinformation online.
Modelling cooperative, cross-party working on issues of common concern – the cost of living crisis, climate change and foreign conflicts – is important. When we do so, we can be guided by a shared value – the value of compassion.
While we might differ on how to approach matters, colleagues across the House are keen to ensure that we support those in the most vulnerable circumstances. By remembering our common ground and the responsibility we all have in demonstrating good behaviour online, I hope we can usher in a new era of collaborative working on problems which, in their magnitude, eclipse our differences. I am encouraged by the energy behind this effort to bring more compassionate solutions to policy problems.
Siobhan Baillie is the Conservative MP for Stroud
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.