Everything wrong with the Electoral Commission’s suggestion to ban trolls from voting

Today in terrible ideas.

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Social media trolls could be banned from voting under legislation suggested by Britain’s election watchdog. The Electoral Commission said yesterday that introducing new offences around trolling could reduce the amount of abuse faced by politicians. Let he who has not trolled cast the first ballot.

Here’s the thing about this idea: it’s what we call a bad one. Although it is in its infancy, it should not be allowed to grow old. As it stands, the Electoral Commission have suggested building on existing electoral laws, dating back to the 1800s, which rule that certain electoral offences can result in the offender being disqualified from voting or running in an election.

“In some instances electoral law does specify offences in respect of behaviour that could also amount to an offence under the general, criminal law. It may be that similar special electoral consequences could act as a deterrent to abusive behaviour in relation to candidates and campaigners,” the Electoral Commission stated.

Here are two truths: 1) MPs face a shocking amount of abuse on Twitter that must not go on unchallenged, and 2) this is not the way to stop it. Dianne Abbott – who incidentally was statistically proven to be the most abused MP during the 2017 general election – disagrees with the policy. Yesterday, she tweeted: “Don't agree. Their abuse should be stopped, not their votes.”

The first issue is that banning a large group of people from voting is a direct attack on our democracy, laws-dating-back-to-the-1800s or not. But even leaving that big old clunky Orwellian nightmare aside, there are a multitude of problems with the proposal.

What is a troll? What is abuse?

Most people think they know the answers to these questions – most people are wrong. There is no firm definition of an internet troll or internet abuse, and the terms are often thrown around incorrectly. In August, political journalists were mocked for assuming the internet slang “corncobbed” was a homophobic slur. “Kys” – an initialism for the words “kill yourself” – is used as a joke by teens, but can be a disturbing message to be on the receiving end of. Just over a year ago, Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire was ruthlessly mocked for reporting a student who tweeted at her to “get in the sea”, another popular online slang phrase.

It is clearly hard to define what constitutes abuse – and this is problematic not just because people could end up wrongly accused, but because such flexible definitions would easily allow abuse of the system.

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that many true trolls take pains to hide their identity online. While it could be argued that people who are serially abusive deserve to have their privacy invaded, allowing the police to investigate the identity of anyone they deem abusive is clearly problematic (although it would just be one addition to the UK’s ever-increasing list of shockingly dystopian surveillance laws).

And how can the public trust that such laws really are intended to stop trolls? Over the last year, newspapers and policy makers have suggested encroaching on our privacy and democracy in order to put an end to terrorism. The Daily Mail has called Google “the terrorist’s friend”, while The Sun similarly blamed Whatsapp’s encryption policies for the Westminster attacks. On the surface, it’s hard to disagree with these ideas. You want to stop terrorists, don’t you? Trolls are bad, aren’t they? But in reality, security and privacy are not a binary, and this is a moral panic designed to manipulate the public into agreeing with anti-democratic laws.

But finally, the Electoral Commission’s suggestion is simply disproportionate to the problem. At present there is no real “warning” system to deter an online troll from engaging in abusive behaviour, and it seems a huge leap to go from the occasional email from Twitter to a real-life “block” button in the form of banning votes. MPs can mute a person on social media, that doesn’t mean they should be able to mute them from public life.

The root of this new suggested policy is agreeable, as it is undeniable that abuse is unacceptable. Yet this is a proposal designed to be abused. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh