By Pierre Andrews and Alice Hopkin

The Problem

This week, online racist abuse once again reared its ugly head, attacking Manchester United player and lauded campaigner Marcus Rashford MBE. The issue reached the highest levels of government, with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden threatening to fine social media platforms if they failed to curb such atrocious behaviour on their platforms. It also tapped into a closely linked issue, that of online anonymity: YouGov polling found that 45% of Brits think that if you had to provide a photo ID in order to set up a social media account, it would reduce abuse, against 30% who don’t think it would help and 24% who don’t know.

Online abuse is by no means a new problem, but it has been more noticeable over the course of the pandemic. It is understandable why people turned to social media to stay in touch, prevent loneliness and keep entertained whilst we have had spells in lockdown. Amongst these positive aspects of social media, the Internet is being used by hateful individuals to send abuse – often anonymously – to others, particularly to Members of Parliament.

We were prompted to look into this issue after reading Siobhan Baillie MP’s article in The Times. After Siobhan gave birth to her daughter in May 2020, she received an onslaught of online abuse because she was taking maternity leave – a legal entitlement in the UK. Siobhan puts this down to misogyny and politics, due to her marginal seat.

For Margaret Hodge MP, this anonymous abuse has flooded her social media in the tens of thousands of abusive tweets each month, some being anti-Semitic. An article in The Telegraph discusses Margaret’s views that the Government must ban online anonymity or make social media directors liable for these posts.

We spoke to Tom Tugendhat MP about his experiences of anonymous abuse on social media. He told us that “when taking public office, you become a public figure and it’s to be expected that people will form opinions of you … we’re not talking political disagreement and genuine criticism here, but about the very few messages that are outright abusive … It isn’t about free speech as some might claim, but about anti-social behaviour from a few individuals who send targeted and malicious messages intended to scare and hurt.” When asked if he thought it stopped people from standing in elections, he said: “Yes, I think it’s very possible that it deters some from running for office, or from running for re-election if they’ve experienced it … research has found, for instance, that women receive more sexist abuse, and ethnic minority MPs more racist abuse.”

Andrew Bowie MP told us that he receives abuse particularly from members of the SNP, but he chooses not to read the abuse. He stated: “I wouldn’t choose to subject my worst enemy to some of the abuse received by friends of mine, of all parties, online. Particularly women MPs. I think it is very damaging to public debate and corrosive to politics in general. And yes, I think good competent people are put off getting into politics and making a difference because of it.”

We need more diversity in Parliament, not less. If anonymous abuse is preventing people, particularly women and people from minority backgrounds, from standing for election, we need to take action.

To quote Oliver Dowden, “if it’s illegal offline, it’s illegal online” – so how can we address these problems?

The Solutions

In the Online Harms White Paper consultation response published in December 2020, the Government reiterated that “anonymous abuse can have a significant impact on victims, whether members of the public or high-profile public figures”. The future Online Safety Bill will establish a Duty of Care for online platforms towards their users; and whilst the Government does not plan itself to impose any limits on online anonymity, it will expect social media companies to address anonymous online abuse that is illegal through clear terms and conditions that they properly and transparently enforce. The Law Commission is also conducting a review into this area, and will soon publish recommendations for potential changes to criminal law to take into account the fact that anonymity can facilitate abusive behaviour.

On a practical level, if the Government is expecting the platforms to adapt their T&Cs to effectively tackle anonymity, what measures should they implement? Not-for-profit campaign organisation Clean Up The Internet thinks the solution lies in making verification more mainstream. At the moment, verification is a mark of distinction – a privilege – on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Others, like Tinder, offer verification to users who are willing to let the app take selfies and compare them with previously uploaded photos. Parler, when it was still up and running, gave ‘Real User’ status to those who uploaded official photo ID. Clean Up The Internet is advocating for the first group to offer the same choices to users as the second group; still allowing for anonymity, but no longer making verification a privilege. The not-for-profit also recommends that the distinction between verified and unverified users should be crystal clear, and that they have the choice to curate their feeds as to only see verified users’ posts.

Asked about this, Tom Tugendhat replied that “encouraging people to sign messages in their own name would at the very least mean it’s easier to hold people to account where they send threatening or abusive messages, and could perhaps encourage people to think twice about how a message could come across.” Andrew Bowie also told us he’d be in favour of Clean Up The Internet’s proposals.

Another solution, proposed by the consultancy PoliMonitor, also goes in the direction of empowering users to curate their social media feeds – this time, to cut out abusive content. The agency told us that, following their finding that on specific days of the 2019 UK General Election campaign, 16.5% of tweets or mentions received by 2,500 candidates were abusive, they could build a filter app, which would prevent elected officials from the worst insults sent to them. This solution wouldn’t directly address anonymity, but rather help mitigate its consequences.

Ultimately, the answer to dealing with anonymous abuse will lie in how we tackle two of the biggest digital policy questions of our time: what is freedom of speech online; and are we ready for digital identification to become mainstream? For the first, we think that the UK Government can lead the world and strike a delicate balance between the arguments of those who believe that social media is the new public square, and those who say they should be treated like private publishers, with editorial responsibilities. But for the second, Britain has a thriving tech safety sector, impulsed by the age verification chapter in the Digital Economy Act 2017, which will now form part of the Online Safety Bill. Companies like Yoti and TrustElevate are pioneering user-verification techniques that don’t put your privacy at risk.

As Conservatives, we are naturally inclined to trust the market: more diversity of choice will be beneficial to all. So we’d like to be able to choose more identification and less abuse.