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18 October 2021

Would ending online anonymity reduce abuse against MPs?

In the aftermath of the killing of David Amess MP, the government has reverted back to its favourite brand of technosolutionism.

When David Amess was stabbed to death at his weekly constituency surgery, it reignited a longstanding debate about the issue of MPs’ safety. For decades, our elected politicians have been subject to horrific abuse – including real-life violence – from the public for standing up for what they believe in.

When that abuse simmers over and results in the death of an innocent man just doing his job, and by all accounts an upstanding defender of his constituents’ needs, it is understandable to call for radical action to ensure it does not happen again.

What solutions to MP abuse are being suggested?

One solution being floated by the government is removing online anonymity. Home Secretary Priti Patel suggested to Sky News over the weekend that ministers “want to make some big changes on that”.

This is the latest attempt by the government to try to remove the cloak with which some shroud their threats online. On the face of it, it seems like a semi-sensible policy solution. MPs are subject to huge volumes of abuse online, much of it from anonymous accounts. That has been the case for at least a decade, with police investigating more and more threats against politicians.

Online abuse, then, is an issue. But online abuse is not what killed Amess. And nor will it be solved by making people use their real names on the internet.

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“I’m appalled that Priti Patel would use the death of David Amess to call for greater erosion of online privacy when the MP was sadly murdered in person,” says Pat Walshe, a data protection expert with decades of experience. “For me it’s quite worrying to see these kneejerk, poorly considered responses.”

Why are people saying we should remove online anonymity?

Patel rightly labelled the sheer volume and level of abuse that MPs receive daily, for just doing their job, as “relentless” and “cruel”. It is completely unacceptable. But her logic seems to be that people who abuse MPs do so because they feel emboldened by their anonymity.

There’s little evidence that this is the case. In fact, 99 per cent of the online abuse directed at victims in one recent high-profile incident came from named accounts, rather than anonymous ones.

[See also: Why has so little been done to improve MPs’ security?]

What does the public think?

The last time this was discussed – and the last time the government tried to attach one of its tech policy goals awkwardly on to a current news event with real-life victims – was in the summer, when England’s elite black football players faced abuse for the team’s loss in the Euro 2020 final.

Then, removing anonymity was presented as a way to solve racism (which would be news to the millions of racists who existed in the centuries before the internet existed, and to those who feel comfortable voicing what they think up and down the country). Concerningly, vast swathes of the country fell for the idea that there was a simple solution to this complex societal problem. In a YouGov survey more than three-quarters of Britons said they believe people should have to disclose their real-life identity either to the world through their social media profile, or to the social network they’re posting on. Just 11 per cent of people realised the catastrophically huge issues around demanding identification to post online.

How would removing online anonymity work?

It’s a highly complicated process that would put the onus on social media platforms to verify users’ information. Assuming the government managed to get the platforms on board, you’d essentially need to provide your passport or some other ID to a social network in order to use it. That may be fine for some, but platforms’ struggles to correctly and safely handle the personal data we already give them makes some circumspect about handing them so much more.

But would it actually fix the problem?

Technosolutionism is a favourite sticking plaster to problems, in part because it changes the calculus involved.

If we say that Amess was killed because people didn’t have to use their real names online, it means we don’t have to consider deeply what motivates a person to stab a community-minded member of parliament in a church in broad daylight on an October lunchtime. It means we don’t have to think about the police failings that missed the signs Amess’s killer was planning his attack, nor do we have to think of the consequences of MPs not being safe when meeting members of the public.

It’s the same playbook we used when we were faced with the unavoidable, ugly face of racism in our country three months ago. We pretended the problem wasn’t with people’s perceptions of race, but with Twitter. If only we banned the monkey emoji, we could end racism. If only we made people use their real names online, they’d suddenly rethink whether stabbing someone multiple times is in any way normal.

“Aside from the fact that journalists, activists and even children at risk have a right to the protections of online anonymity, de-anonymising all online activity won’t eliminate crime or terrorism: it will simply make it easier to identify some people who have already committed crimes,” says Victoria Baines, a former Europol officer and cybersecurity expert. “If we focus solely on technological solutions, there is a danger that we will be even further away from effectively tackling these social problems.”

What would happen if we did end online anonymity?

People would still be racist. Terrorists would still plot to kill MPs. And rather than making us feel safer, ending online anonymity could actually make a proportion of the online population more at risk.

Online anonymity allows whistleblowers to speak candidly about concerns and to raise issues with employers. It allows the poor to be honest about their situation, and to offer support to each other in online groups on how to survive. It allows sex workers, immigrants and those who are marginalised in other ways to separate their digital lives from their offline ones, and to not be vilified or cast out from society because of their need to earn a living.

Shutting off that ability to a good proportion of the population to tackle the literally 1 per cent of those who use anonymity as a shield for hatred – when there is little evidence showing they move their online hate into offline attacks – isn’t about doing the right thing. It’s about trying to capitalise on someone’s murder to push a pet project.

“Instead of calling for the end of anonymity, we should be looking at how society got here,” says Walshe. “Let’s begin a different approach where people are valued and people value one another.”

[See also: David Amess’s death and the threats to all MPs show we must change the way we do politics]

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