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Opinion

Yes, online abuse is bad, and racism on social media is abhorrent, but removing anonymity on the internet would be far worse

Following the racial abuse of black footballers after England’s defeat in the Euros, some are demanding the abolition of anonymous social media accounts. This overreaction could have dire consequences for online freedom.

Earlier this year, the glamour model-turned TV personality Katie Price started an online petition to force social media companies to demand proof of identity before allowing people to create accounts. In the aftermath of England’s Euro 2020 defeat on Sunday and the subsequent online abuse of the black footballers who missed penalties in that game, the petition has received a new lease on life, rocketing to over 600,000 signatories.

Price was responding to online abuse directed at her disabled son, Harvey. There is no doubt that Price and her son have been the target of some very unpleasant comments. The same can be said about the England players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. When someone posts something in their own name, and if the comment amounts to hate speech or is threatening, then they face the prospect of being prosecuted or at the very least sacked from their jobs.

But if someone is posting anonymously, legal action may be impossible, especially as much of the abuse of the England players came from outside the UK and quite possibly from automated ‘bots’. As England manager Gareth Southgate noted in reaction to the social media posts: “For some of them to be abused is unforgivable really. I know a lot of that has come from abroad, people who track these things are able to explain that, but not all of it.”

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Social media has been an incredibly useful tool to allow us to communicate with each other. It allows us to discuss what is going on in the world and share interesting articles and other material. I’m constantly checking Twitter for such things. My wife jacked in her job three years ago to become an artist, and Instagram has been invaluable to her to share her work, as it has been for many other new businesses. Celebrities have used social media, with huge success, to keep in touch with their fans and to promote themselves.

But Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest have also offered an outlet for ‘trolls’ to be deeply unpleasant. Perhaps if we could find a way to keep the good bits of social media while keeping out those who want to use it to harass and insult other users, that would make the whole experience more enjoyable. If people want to post on social media, what’s wrong with forcing them to put their name to what they say?

However, losing the ability to be anonymous has its problems, too. Many people want to comment on areas of public interest, but could have problems with their employers if they did so. If you live in a country with a dictatorial regime, would you really post about your opposition under your real name? The protests during the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, for all their subsequent failings, were largely organised on Twitter. 

Ironically, for those people who have been subjected to insults online, the ability to use these services anonymously helps them to use them freely. Forcing them to reveal their identities could leave them open to more abuse, not less. As journalist and author Hussein Kesvani notes in the Guardian, even where social media services do require ID (or at least, reserve the right to ask for it), it has done little to solve the problem of abuse online and certainly not the underlying causes of racism.

People may simply want to be private. The GDPR regulations created by the EU and still in force in the UK make great play of demanding that social media companies are transparent with our data. But losing the option of using services anonymously means we would have to hand over even more of our data to them.

The government’s response to Price’s petition has been to point to the Online Safety Bill currently making its way through parliament. But the bill has been widely criticised for its loose language and potential to give a green light to censorship, by groups including Index on Censorship, Big Brother Watch and the Open Rights Group. 

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Matthew Lesh of the Adam Smith Institute told the Daily Mail: “The Online Safety Bill is an incoherent train wreck. The inclusion of ‘lawful but still harmful’ speech represents a frightening and historic attack on freedom of expression. The government should not have the power to instruct private firms to remove legal speech in a free society. The scope of these proposals is practically limitless, encompassing everything from ‘trolling’ to ‘fraud’ and ‘misinformation’. The vagueness of the legislation means there will be nothing to stop Ofcom and a future government including any additional measures in future.”

This is hardly the kind of protection we should be looking for, a law which actually attacks freedom rather than defending it. State-appointed bureaucrats will get to decide what is ‘abuse’ rather than forceful but legitimate criticism. Social media services already possess multiple ways for users to avoid insults and attacks, from blocking trolls to making formal complaints. Abandoning the option of anonymity will only scratch the surface of the many problems with social media while creating significant potential harm. Don’t do it.

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