We must stamp out online hate that lays the foundation for persecution and atrocities to take place
Anonymous accounts currently act with impunity, free to create a narrative that is often aggressive, untruthful and divisive, writes Margaret Hodge MP. | PA Images
Government must hold social media companies responsible for establishing the identity of every user on their platform, so that anyone promoting hate speech and violence can be traced.
Every year, on Holocaust Memorial Day, we hold a debate and painfully reflect on the horrors inflicted by the Nazis; parliamentarians rightly also speak out about more recent – and ongoing – atrocities, from the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to the persecution facing Uyghurs in China.
But this despicable human persecution does not happen in a vacuum. It always begins with lies and distortion, hate speech and unchecked racism. In the modern world this type of toxicity can most frequently be found online.
With this in mind, I am determined that Parliament commits to taking firm action; and with the Online Harms Bill expected to come before Parliament later this year we have the opportunity to make a big difference. But we need to give the legislation real teeth.
I face a tidal wave of antisemitic abuse on social media every time I call out antisemitism. These abusive posts promulgate misinformation, promote dangerous conspiracy theories, amplify antisemitic tropes and circulate hate speech. They aim to paint me and other Jewish voices as untrustworthy and so to silence us when we call out antisemitism. Anonymous accounts currently act with impunity, free to create a narrative that is often aggressive, untruthful and divisive.
Social media companies need to be held personally liable for what is published on their social media platforms
So I have come to the view that legislation must tackle the complex issue of online anonymity. Just as PayPal, an online payment platform, can source the identity of its users, every social media company must establish the identity of everybody who uses their platform. That way, if content strays into hate speech or it incites violence, the appropriate bodies can track down those responsible.
Needless to say, we must include protections for the many who genuinely depend upon anonymity when using social media, like whistle blowers and victims of domestic violence. As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee I regularly relied on whistle blowers to lift the lid on government waste and tax avoidance. So I for one want to make sure that robust measures are in place to protect those who use anonymity for their own safety and the public good. All the while still going after those who use anonymity as a cloak to freely promote hate speech online.
But the government’s present proposals need to be strengthened by imposing a duty on social media companies to provide the identities of individuals who use their platforms to act illegally or cause harm to any relevant statutory body - and that should be done without a charge.
Directors who run social media companies need to be held personally liable for what is published on their social media platforms. This is the only way to make sure that social media platforms take abuse seriously rather than just treating it as a business cost or an inconvenience to be side-stepped.
Finally, new legislation needs to cover all social media platforms, not just the mainstream, larger platforms like Twitter and Facebook. There is a plethora of smaller platforms – such as Parler – that have become something of a digital ‘Wild West’ for extremist content, misinformation and hate speech. They cannot be allowed to creep around this legislation simply because of a legal technicality.
As we reflect, I sincerely hope that parliamentarians from all parties can also commit to act. Together, we can stamp out the hate that so often acts as the intellectual foundation for persecution, atrocities and genocide. It is the very least we can do.
Dame Margaret Hodge is the Labour MP for Barking.