Debate - Tackling Internet Trolls
Last month on Politics Home, Siobhan Baillie MP wrote:
'the tragic death of Sarah Everard had 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.'
© Siobhan Baillie MP / Politics Home 2021.
Siobhan Baillie may well have a point in her contention that online anonymity, as it currently stands, is a bad idea. There is little question that the ability of many people to hide behind fake user names provides cover to write and post whatever they wish and be as gratuitously offensive as their user name allows them to be.
However, governments need to tread carefully. We have already seen over the past year how easy it is for governments to arbitrarily steal freedoms and rights using health as the reason for doing so. As I wrote in my book Comments of a Common Man Edition 3, published in 2019 and before the onset of Covid-19, health is one of three things that have been routinely used to restrict people; the other two are Terrorism and Child Protection.
All three are extraordinarily worthy of greater effort but they must also come with a caveat; that of the right to be free - to be free to walk the streets without fear of being blown up; to be free to grow up without being abused and of course, to be free to make our own, properly informed, decisions as to our health.
The key words there remember are; the right to be free. And it does include the right to offend and to be offended.
Let's also remember that health is not limited to any one aspect of protecting it. Taken to a logical conclusion, if we are to be fully protected in terms of health, we would never play any kind of sport, do anything at all that comes with any perception of risk (however slight), or for that matter, even leave home. Yet more accidents occur at home than anywhere else. The government's misguided approach to 'keeping everybody safe' from Covid-19 is fundamentally flawed from many perspectives but from this one especially so.
It is not possible to truly 'safe' from everything. Any government that tries to do so will end up doing only one thing and that is to crush its people in spirit, in mind and in body. And we have seen this not just in the UK but across the world. Small wonder then, that outright rebellion is growing. And it applies to the internet and social media as well as it does to other aspects of life.
I do agree entirely that there is no excuse for the obscenities that some produce, hidden as they are behind their fake names on social media. However, people also have, or should have, the right to use a pseudonym when writing. The word pseudonym is defined as 'meaning a fictitious name used when a person performs a social role' - as for example, in writing (although not limited to it). Most commonly used by book authors it is a well-established practice. Again however, there is a caveat, and this is where Siobhan Baillie needs to think twice, as do governments.
Ms Baillie is right when she says that the tech companies do not know who millions of their users are. She is wrong with her idea of giving users the option to block others - this already exists. She is terribly wrong with the suggestion of making it 'easy for everyone to see whether or not a user is verified with a prominent badge or mark.'
We really don't want to go down the road of marking (with a badge or otherwise, online or elsewhere) some people as different from others...really, we don't. We have already been there within the first three months of 2021, as I pointed out in my earlier article here on KJM Today, Forgetting the Lessons of History (February 18, 2021).
We are still there now, with those suffering hidden disabilities feeling that they are compelled to wear something, usually a lanyard with a card attached, identifying them as not having to hide their faces behind a covering. And we have been there in this respect since the mask law was introduced.
Ms Baillie is again wrong with her idea of giving users the option to verify their identities. This should not be optional; when an account with any form of social media is opened, users must be required to provide their real name and address - in other words, who they are but...the option comes with having the ability, if a user wishes to have one, a user name - a pseudonym. That is the public name. The real name and address of the user remains private and is known only to the platform provider.
This is how, when a user posts obscene comments or material, they can, and indeed must be, reported to the appropriate authority. In the UK, this would usually be the police, who can then use existing law to visit the user and take further action. The platform provider also then has the option of, if really needed, banning said person from their site.
Granted it is possible to use a fake address and get away with it but nothing can ever be perfect. In terms of safety, nothing ever can be. Not in a truly free society.
What we cannot do is punish or threaten social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook being the most oft-quoted examples. Once again we have already seen the results of this; people are finding an honestly-held and equally honestly expressed opinion - with no bad language or other offensive terms used - ending up with their account being banned.
Put another way, social media companies are being pressured by governments to censor what people say. And while the intention may well be a good one, as it always has been the road to hell is paved with them.
© Kevan James 2021
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