Direct from the sunny hills of California, an email landed in my inbox. Something to the tune of “go back where you came from”, “kill yourself”, and some other unpleasant sentiments.
How do I know it came from California? Oh, because the sender had his work address in his signature, complete with his name and even a contact number.
When people want to send you hate, they don’t care about anonymity. I’ve even tried video calling some of my trolls on Instagram and yes, they pick up. They aren’t afraid to show their names, their faces, or in some cases their work places. Let’s not forget the maths teacher who sent abuse to footballer Marcus Rashford and did so from a Twitter account that included his name and job.
While some of the trolls, jarred by the imminent prospect of being face-to-face with their subject, declined my calls, others brazenly answered. And once they had seen that I was an actual person and not just a name online, I hung up on them without saying a word.
Following the tragic death of MP Sir David Amess, there have been renewed calls to target internet trolls and vigilantes by banning anonymous accounts.
Home secretary Priti Patel said that banning unnamed people on social media could be a step towards preventing radicalisation. This, after Ali Harbi Ali, the 25-year-old who has been charged with Amess’s murder, was said to have been radicalised by material found online during lockdown.
Diane Abbott, who has received more online abuse than any other female MP, has also backed calls to end people hiding behind faceless usernames, while journalist Marianna Spring, whose recent Panorama documentary investigated the sharp rise in online abuse, especially against women, gave evidence to a committee of MPs this week to inform drafting of the new Online Safety Bill.
Critics of the ‘anonymity ban’ proposals point out that Amess wasn’t targeted online, but in real life, with fatal consequences. And given that most hate comes from accounts which include a poster’s personal details, talks of a ban do seem like a misplaced conversation.
In fact, research by Twitter, conducted in the aftermath of racist abuse directed at young Black players for England during the Euros, shows that 99% of the accounts sending hate were identifiable.
Introducing legislation to ensure people use their real names won’t negate the problem of online abuse – it might even create more problems
The Open Rights Group, a UK-based digital campaigning organisation working to protect our rights to privacy and free speech online, says anonymity is a necessity for some.
“Banning anonymity online, introducing a Twitter passport, is a dangerous and impractical idea,” executive director Jim Killock tells HuffPost UK.
“Anonymous accounts are rarely anonymous, the police have the powers to identify people acting illegally online. Are MPs really proposing that only people who register with a passport or driving license should be able to use Facebook or Twitter? This has been debated before and the idea dropped quite simply because it wouldn’t work.”
Preventing people from keeping their online anonymity will put many people at risk, Killock adds, including LGBTQ people, the victims of domestic violence, and those campaigners who need to speak out about difficult topics or experiences. “People who face discrimination need anonymity to protect their identity. LGBTQ people, victims of harassment and bullying, trades unionists, all use anonymity to separate different parts of the lives,” he says.
So, what needs to be done? “The key thing is that law breakers should be investigated and prosecuted,” says Killock. “We can do that with the existing powers we have.”
Paul Bernal, professor of IT law at the University of East Anglia, agrees that anonymity is more likely to put the vulnerable at risk than curbing offenders.
He believes we are looking at the issue from the wrong perspective – because more often than not, trolls don’t even see themselves as trolls.
“I don’t think banning anonymity will have any noticeable effect on trolls sending abuse, but could actually make things worse, particularly for vulnerable people,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“Evidence suggests that when required to use their real names, trolls can actually get more abusive. It’s also worth remembering that many (perhaps most) trolls don’t think they’re trolls, but that they’re the ‘good guys’ and their victims are the trolls. They’re not ashamed of what they say – they’re proud of it – so making them use real names won’t ‘shame them into silence’.
Prof Bernal adds: “Too many people advocating [for] real names think only from their own perspective: if *they* were using their real names, they wouldn’t be so angry, so aggressive etc. The trolls don’t see it that way. We need to think a bit more from their perspective to understand why real names won’t help.”
What does he think would help? “A better and more responsible media,” he suggests. “Changing the ‘recommendation engines’ used by Facebook, Twitter, Google et al would make a lot of difference, as people wouldn’t have so much content ‘pushed’ at them that makes them more extreme and more angry.
“But most importantly, we need to stop thinking there can be a ‘magic wand’ to solve this. The problem is a societal one: while we have a society with so much anger and hate, we’ll have a social media with anger and hate.”
So, maybe we should start there.