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Tech companies must clean up the digital Dodge City by tackling anonymous internet trolls

4 min read

The tragic death of Sarah Everard has rightly put safety in our towns and cities front and centre of a big societal debate and we want action to be taken. But people face danger and harassment, not only in the physical world, but on the dark cyber streets and alleyways of the internet, and particularly from anonymous accounts on social media.

The litany of hate and abuse continues largely unchecked and it is worse towards women, black women, minorities and the transgender community. These cowardly so-called "keyboard warriors" (that is too noble a term), are getting away with it. They are aided by social media platforms, who could do more but appear unwilling to do so.

The stakes are high. This is why I am leading a debate in the House to continue to highlight that more can and must be done.  

If we do not tackle online anonymity, which is being abused in itself, the horror, the suicides, the bullying, racism and misogyny, as well as people being put off jobs and democracy being undermined, will continue unchecked. There is no greater impediment of freedom of expression than fearing rape threats for expressing a view.

My own experience of hate came as I recovered from the difficult birth of my daughter last year. The outpouring of bile because I said I would take four weeks’ maternity leave was a shock and prompted me to campaign.

Attacking somebody for being a mum or suggesting that a mum cannot do the job of an MP is misogynistic and, quite frankly, ridiculous, but I would be lying if I said that I did not find some of the comments stressful and upsetting.

Of course, abuse and harassing type behaviour is not just from anonymous accounts.  And female politicians are just one category considered fair game. Others receive terrible abuse, including black footballers dealing with racist idiots who are no longer verbal on the terraces. They sit in the footballers’ pockets on their phones instead.

Hate is also not just the only problem on those dark cyber streets. Fake news, vaccine misinformation, reputation ruining and online fraud are all part of the mix that needs careful consideration.

The government is doing some fantastic work on online harms. The focus on protecting children and empowering adults to stay safe online is incredibly important. And Ministers say the legislation will deal with online nasties by requiring social media platforms to take more effective actions against abuse, whether that is anonymous or not. 

However, as it stands, the tech companies do not know who millions of their users are, so they do not know who their harmful operators are, either. There are no sheriffs in this digital Dodge City and that's a big problem.

I do not therefore believe the proposed legislation goes far enough. The White Paper barely addressed anonymity, despite accepting in the document that anonymous abuse is on the rise. Most men and women on the Clapham omnibus would expect government to consider the impact that anonymity has when considering online harms. The Law Commission said that anonymity often facilitates and encourages abusive behaviours. 

By failing to deal with anonymity properly, any regulator or police force, or even the tech companies themselves, will still need to take extensive steps to uncover the person behind the account first, before they can tackle the issue or protect a user. Everyone understands this is a big undertaking now the social media cat is out of the bag.

In 2021, the public expects proper leadership on tech. I believe we can really lead the way and I have three main asks of tech companies and the government: 

  • give social media users the option to verify their identity - every social media user should be given the option of a robust, secure means of verifying that the identity they are using on social media is authentic. Users who wish to continue unverified should be free to continue to do so.
  • give users the option to block interaction with unverified users - some will be happy to interact with unverified users. Others will not, but there must be a choice. Every verified social media user can have the option of blocking communication, comments, and other interaction from unverified users as a category. 
  • make it easy for everyone to see whether or not a user is verified with a prominent badge or mark.

I believe just these three simple steps would be a gamechanger in the campaign to limit hate on the Internet and, crucially, it doesn’t ban anonymous accounts, which do have positive benefits too and are a place for those who fear genuine reprisal for their views.

I also believe the tech companies can easily do these three things. So far, they haven’t and it may be time they were made to.

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