In the early days of social media I enthusiastically championed this new way of sharing ideas and information, believing it would advance democratic participation. Social media enabled more people’s voices to be heard more equally.
But after experiencing a torrent of vitriol and abuse as I campaigned against the scourge of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and after talking to people of colour and young people about the impact harmful online abuse has on them, I was forced to think again.
In just two months after the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on Labour’s anti-Semitism was published, I received 90,000 mentions online. Most were anonymous and many were abusive. The posts painted me as a hateful person – a paedophile, a racist, a tax-avoider and a Palestinian child murderer.
By portraying this false image of me as a bad person, people hoped to delegitimise me and the work that I do. They posted abusive lies online to shut my voice down and so undermine my democratic rights. I know from talking to others that fear of abuse stops them from going online, silencing their voices too.
Much of online abuse is anonymous, so if we want to bear down on it – and if we really do want to promote healthy democratic debate – we need to tackle the misuse of anonymity.
We all want anonymity online, particularly for people like whistle-blowers and victims of domestic violence or child abuse. But anonymity is a privilege. If individuals misuse that privilege to harm others they should lose it. It is anonymous abuse, not anonymity that needs to be tackled.
The platforms need to create a system whereby a third party holds the identity details of all users. This way people remain anonymous to the platform but can be identified if they post harmful abuse online. We know this is possible because every PayPal user’s identity is known.
There are plenty of organisations that already hold data on individuals, like banks, who could provide the third-party verification needed. Then individuals can be traced if they post harmful abuse, but their anonymity can be protected if they don’t.
If this obligation to trace people is coupled with the Law Commission’s proposals to introduce a new, stronger offence that would make posts that are likely or intended to cause harm illegal, we could start to tackle harmful online abuse.
The social media platforms will not act without being compelled by the law. Their business model depends on maximising traffic to maximise advertising revenue. As harmful online abuse sadly encourages use, it is not in the platforms’ commercial interests to remove it.
Sadly, Nadine Dorries’ recent proposal will not give us the protection we need. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is suggesting that we will all have the right simply to block any anonymous posts from our personal account. That means you will not personally see abusive content but abuse and lies about you will continue to be seen by others and your character attacked. The police advise that it is important that all abusive content is monitored so that they can assess whether there is a real and present threat to you personally; blocking anonymous postings will obviously mean that abusive content cannot be monitored.
So we need stronger action. We need to grasp the opportunity of the government’s Online Safety Bill to tackle online abuse in a pragmatic and effective way, not by undermining anonymity or freedom of speech, but by ridding the social media platforms of anonymous and harmful abuse.