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21 October 2021

Are anonymous accounts responsible for most online abuse?

Data analysis by the New Statesman shows the share of abuse from anonymous and named accounts.

By Ben van der Merwe

The murder of David Amess MP, the second killing of a sitting parliamentarian in five years, has reignited concerns about the UK’s political culture. Conservative backbencher Mark Francois, a friend of Amess, has called for the government to include a ban on anonymous social media accounts in its Online Safety Bill.

“In his memory, we now want David’s Law – so that it will be illegal in future for people to go online under a cloak of anonymity and call people everything under the sun,” Francois told GB News.

But a New Statesman analysis suggests that banning anonymous accounts would do little to solve the problem of online abuse. 

We assessed the emotional content of all 2.3 million tweets directed at MPs since the beginning of 2021 using a method developed by Canada’s National Research Council.

Anger was the dominant emotion detected in 31 per cent of the tweets, which included replies, quote tweets and mentions. Since January, a UK MP has received an angry tweet every 76 seconds, and a tweet containing a swear word every three minutes.

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While 32 per cent of tweets from anonymous accounts were classed as angry, so too were 30 per cent of tweets from accounts with full names attached.

Similarly, 5.6 per cent of tweets from anonymous accounts included swear words, only slightly higher than the figure of 5.3 per cent for named accounts.

Accounts were classed as anonymous if their username included neither a first or last name, and as named accounts if they included both a first name and a last name. Named accounts and anonymous accounts were each responsible for 41 per cent of the tweets to MPs that contained swear words.

Home Secretary Priti Patel and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab have both indicated that they are open to the idea of a ban on anonymous accounts, a proposal that has drawn criticism from human rights groups.

“Online anonymity is a vital tool in the armoury of journalists, human rights activists and whistleblowers,” Mark Johnson, legal and policy officer at the campaign group Big Brother Watch, told the New Statesman.

“Should the government choose to go down the path of censorship and surveillance with this legislation then it will embolden autocratic regimes around the world to take a similar path.”

Fatima* has used an anonymous Twitter account to blog about politics and human rights abuses in her country for the past six years.

“I tweet anonymously because I fear my family and what they could do to me,” she told the New Statesman.

“If this anonymity ban is implemented globally it could mean permanently losing the only space where I can express myself freely without fear of backlash or punishment. I’m sure many activists and dissidents living under autocratic rule, in addition to women in patriarchal societies, could say the exact same.”

Allan Hogarth, head of advocacy and programmes at Amnesty International UK, told the New Statesman that he understood the “legitimate concerns” around the abuse of online anonymity. “However, there is also the very real threat of surveillance for activists living under repressive regimes such as those in China and Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“For these human rights defenders, the ability to remain anonymous can be a matter of life and death.”

*Not her real name

[See also: Would ending online anonymity reduce abuse against MPs?]

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