Should anonymous social media accounts be banned?

There are growing calls for an end to people being able to hide their identity online. But is this a threat to free speech? Labour MP Jess Phillips and tech author Jamie Bartlett swap ideas

Dear Jess

It is true that hiding behind a screen allows – sometimes maybe encourages – people to say and do things they wouldn’t in person. And the increase in nasty, offensive, and in certain cases clearly illegal, behaviour online is a big problem which the tech platforms haven’t tackled enough. I’m sure we both agree on that.

But stripping everyone of the ability to be anonymous online is not the answer. First, imagine what would be required to make it work: I suppose people would hand over passports or ID cards to Facebook to prove who they are? The more you think about the practicalities, the worse this idea gets. Surely we’ve learned over the last few months about the many dangers of big companies knowing everything about us all the time. Are you sure you want more of that?

Even if we could make this happen without building a Chinese-style digital surveillance system, we still shouldn’t. Stripping trolls of their anonymity might lessen marginally the nastiness, although I’m not convinced: cyber-disinhibition is also caused by the lack of face-to-face, immediate contact, which this idea wouldn’t change. But let’s say it did – and we’re now two hypotheticals in, but for the sake of this exchange I’ll carry on – even then it still wouldn’t be worth it because anonymity has so many good uses too. What about the undercover journalist who joins Facebook groups to expose wrongdoing? Or the teenager who chats in a self-help forum, or the gay person from a religious community who needs to talk, but fears being found out? I’m sure you can imagine a thousand other cases. Do you wish these people out in the open too? I assume not. So how will you guard against it?

Then there’s the broader health of political debate. Our modern panopticon is creating a soft but constant self-censorship. It might not feel like that when people are screaming abuse online – but for every troll there are lurkers who watch but don’t post, for fear of the angry mob; the data collectors, the nosy employers or the hordes of professional offence-takers who shark around the net waiting to be upset. Without the freedom to explore, to imagine, to discuss ideas openly and boldly – things that are often easier when you’re not under the gaze of everyone – our politics will become duller and yet more stilted. This is the very last thing we need.

Dear Jamie
I find myself in an uncomfortable position of becoming a Mary Whitehouse figure. I’ve carried witty banners against laws that would curtail my freedoms. I hear your concerns.

I don’t want any big state actor using my identity against me, or big corporates using it to sell me another widget that will sit in the drawer with the takeaway menus. Oh, it’s too late. Already bot accounts sent to incite hatred against me for the sake of nothing but chaos are at work as I write this on a laptop I bought because the woman using it on Instagram really spoke to me. I don’t want to lecture you, a man far more learned than me, on how messages pumped out seemingly from a bone fide person have affected our politics.

Anonymity and stock-image anime avatars have spread hatred against the gay kid you hope to protect. The citizen journalist you fight for might very well be noble, but I’ve read lies about myself written by so-called truth-telling bloggers that have spread and then been presented to me by completely innocent bystanders as fact. I have no recourse. Eventually the myths become the truth, because “our Auntie Liz saw it on Facebook”.

It might be easy to brush away the febrile atmosphere online as a nasty byproduct of free expression: it’s less easy when it happens to you. When someone wrote messages about burning my vagina with molten metal and another fantasised about my children hanging by their necks I sought legal recompense: alas, they lead to a server in Colombia, a dead end.

I want, just as you do, the freedom of expression and exploration that our online world offers. If I had one wish it would be this. But I cannot be free, I cannot explore ideas any more, because what I get back silences me. It makes me think twice before entering and it censors my voice. It is no longer worth the grief for people (especially women) like me to interact; it’s just too tiring. I am not alone; young women tell me all the time that they won’t speak up because they will have their heads digitally lopped off. One young woman who was writing about her experiences of anxiety, privately messaged me to ask that I undo a retweet of her article because my sharing it had caused her to suffer hours of abuse. Her platform shrank, when you and I both want it to grow.

I am not for one second suggesting that everyone has to appear as who they are online. Have a pseudonym, keep your anime avatar or hammer and sickle for all the reasons you have outlined, but someone should be able to trace who you are. You should have to be verifiable by someone.

Dear Jess
Thanks for the thoughtful response. Likewise, I don’t want to lecture you about what it’s like to be targeted – I watched the abuse you received with horror. I also accept your point that self-censorship also occurs when you fear getting hammered by anonymous bullies.

But surely the answer is better policing. You yourself have documented police incompetence in dealing with this. But that’s changing: the number of arrests for online abuse is going up fast. We should focus on improving policing techniques and resources, rather than upending the way the internet works.

You finished by suggesting “pseudonymity”: that people could keep a mask online, but still be verifiable by someone. But who is that someone? I don’t want Facebook having everyone’s verified identities, even if I can use an avatar. And Facebook at least is run by (mostly) sensible adults. But who would be in charge of verifying the small forums, blogs, and chatrooms where people also spend their time? 4chan – one of the most popular spots for trolls – was set up by a 14-year-old American, and I wouldn’t trust him with anything. Your government might be responsible with the potential power this would create: but what about the next one, or the one after that? Did you see the other day one police force asking for “non-crimes” to be reported?

As you said, sometimes the chase leads to a server in Colombia – a dead end. You’re right. Which is why for this to have the desired effect, you’d probably need every other country in the world doing the same, as many perpetrators are overseas. I’m sure the Colombian, Turkish, Russian and Venezuelan governments would be more than happy to support this idea. Hell, they might even say that if someone so liberal and reasonable as Jess Phillips MP wants it, then why shouldn’t we?

Dear Jamie
We are at risk of reaching a consensus, which will not do. If the internet has taught me anything it is that people are either heroes or they belong in the bin. So I shall persist.

I agree with you that I don’t want rogue governments or 4chan teenagers holding information about anyone. Once again I fear this is too late. Most people don’t have these niche arguments of not wanting to be known, most people have absolutely nothing to fear. Blizzard, the games company, tried to make the players of World of Warcraft stop [using] anonymity as people were becoming feral. Fans were not happy and ended up doxing [spreading private personal information about] those who had suggested it, because it was already available if you knew where to look.

I’ve gone full Mary Whitehouse now. My husband just told me I sound like a lame mom talking about the internet, so I shall get back to things I know about and that is the policing of abuse. Of course it should be better, it definitely needs to catch up with the technology. This is true of many crimes however. I’ve seen how woeful our nation’s response is to rape, for example. A stretched police force, and even more stretched Crown Prosecution Service, cannot manage the incidents of real-life rape, so I could hope all day that policing this [area better] would be the answer. It would be the triumph of hope over experience.

So if we can agree we don’t want smaller forum-holders to have our data, and we don’t want Venezuela sending us a Christmas card, then perhaps just a first step would be to stop anonymity on the big forums such as Reddit, Facebook and Twitter? Because, ultimately, that is where Auntie Liz is getting her distorted news from, and that is where most of us feel the effect.

Dear Jess

This has become the opposite of a normal online debate: you’re trying to force a consensus that doesn’t exist. Are you trying to show the joys of de-anonymised communication? A cunning move, but I can’t agree with this first step. In fact, because a principle is at stake, we absolutely must not take it, since experience suggests it will be the first of many. And I still don’t know how this idea would work. Most likely we’ll end up with the worst of all worlds: the trolls will find ways around it, but poor Aunt Liz gets to enjoy a sterile political culture and zero privacy. If you outlaw anonymity, only outlaws have anonymity. And once that principle – a bit like our data – is gone, we’ll never get it back.

Dear Jamie
A cunning move indeed. The fact that I know who you are and I respect you certainly tempers my words. Not that my arguments or opinions would be any different but I think my manners would be, if say for example this conversation were happening on Twitter and you had a bulldog avatar and the handle “Freespeechkillssnowflakes”. This stuff creates division and dissent.

I don’t know how it would practically work across the board, but then I can’t get the microwave on to a defrost setting. I am fairly certain that there are some clever people and algorithms that could work it out. I do know that if the big platforms, as they already do in part, forced some verifiable information to back up use, we could tame this wild west.

I’ll give up on the consensus-building and just say that I might not know what to do, but I know we can’t do nothing. I’m tired of having to explain to my sons why people hate me and wish me harm when they happen on a YouTube video about me. I cannot bear that every time an anonymous face starts a pile-on, a young woman’s voice dies. I think she had something to say and now I’ll never know.

The trolls and the tweets

I’m gonna be the first thing you see when you wake up

Tweet to Stella Creasy, MP

Maybe if you didn’t pump your body full of drugs you wouldn’t have miscarried

Tweet to Lily Allen

My roast pork today was vile! Had more fat on it than Diane Abbott

Tweet to Diane Abbott, MP

My objection is to the spread of Muslims... your countries are large enough to occomodate you all, why aren’t you going back there. Your culture & religion is incompatable with ours

Tweet to Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain

Don’t want to know anything about him. 2 Pakis ruling over Brits

Tweet to Sajid Javid, the home secretary, also referring to Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London

I will find you, and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do. You’re pathetic. Kill yourself. Before I do

Tweet to social activist Caroline Criado-Perez


Jess Phillips and Jamie Bartlett

The GuardianTramp

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