Ending Social Media Anonymity Is Not About Public Safety

So all the talk in politics at the moment involves removing online anonymity from social media platforms. Apparently, this is the best way to prevent online abuse and protect the safety of elected politicians. But I'm not the only one to smell a rat...

MPs and journalists have been quite openly talking about keeping expenses claims and voting records hidden from the public, and even disrupting online left-wing movements. 

Dan Hodges really let the cat out of the bag with this one.

We all know this is not really about ending online abuse, and it's certainly not about the murder of David Amess whose tragic death has been grotesquely used to manipulate public opinion on what is an entirely separate matter. It's about politicians avoiding accountability and controlling the narrative.

Social media platforms were never supposed to be for politicians to impose their propaganda on us. They have the entire mainstream media for that. Well, now they want social media too.

The rise of the online left in the US and UK has scared the crap out of the establishment. It made figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders possible and showed younger generations a better future was possible. The same politicians who complained that younger people never got involved in politics were suddenly livid to find younger people were very political actually; it's just they didn't want to vote for corrupt individuals who were leaving them behind.

Remember when Noam Chomsky said: "If voting could actually change anything, it would be illegal"? 

Well, what he meant is we live in a managed democracy in which the establishment fiddles around with things to ensure it gets the desired outcome and the latest thing it's fiddling around with is social media to stop you raising your voice and collectively organising.

And the rigging of social media is already well under way... 

Establishment poster boy and Tory-enabler Nick Clegg is now Facebook's Vice President of Global Affairs and he is openly talking about ensuring we see less politics in our news feed. Pretty sure he means less left-wing politics from the alternative media.

Talk to anyone who runs a left-wing Facebook page and they will tell you how they are suddenly being hammered algorithmically. We all used to get huge traction, but not anymore. Now the right-wing pages get the huge traction and we are left near-invisible. And in their bid to tackle "fake news", Facebook is using any and every excuse to censor the left while allowing the mainstream media to push misinformation with impunity. 

If you accidentally share a Facebook post which is only 90% accurate you will get a notification to say the distribution of your page has been reduced, but mainstream media outlets can push totally false narratives like the alleged dictatorship of Evo Morales, while simultaneously celebrating western puppet Jeanine Anez as a human rights icon when she reportedly sent death squads to execute left-wing activists. Thankfully, Anez is no longer in power because the Bolivian people overwhelmingly rejected her in recent elections and put Morales' MAS party back into power, albeit with a new leader.

Can you not see how dangerous this all is? 

The establishment decides to mischaracterise a foreign government as a pretext to regime change, and not only will the mainstream media play along, but even social media giants will, and if you on the left give the slightest inaccuracy when you're countering outright bullshit, you are the one who gets censored. It's all about making sure rich and powerful people have a voice and ordinary people are silenced. It's horribly undemocratic.

Can you imagine the risk to someone's safety, if you remove their anonymity when they're criticising a monster like Jeanine Anez? It doesn't bear thinking about.

And not all examples of potential risks are so far from home.

What about, for example, a gay person who has not yet come out? Perhaps they have very strong reasons not to, perhaps coming out might even put their safety at risk. Imagine removing online anonymity from such a person. Would that not be an incredibly abusive and dangerous thing to do? There are many other examples we could come up with, such as the often highlighted risk to victims of domestic violence. 

The thing is being anonymous online can actually reduce the risk of bullying and violence. Perhaps you were horribly bullied at school and you set up a Twitter account under an alias because the last thing you wanted is the bullies following you over from Facebook. Perhaps you are trans and you have not yet transitioned and just want to explore the real you in an online space before you are ready to tell the world. Or perhaps you are exposing unsafe practices in your work place and are terrified of being fired. Perhaps you're an activist who was previously campaigning under your real name and you were assaulted in the street so you decided to keep your activism anonymous to protect yourself and your family. I could name a whole bunch of activists who've been stalked and assaulted.

There are a ton of very legitimate reasons for people to remain anonymous online and it would be a huge invasion of privacy to suddenly out all these people. Far from protecting against abuse, ending online anonymity would actually be an incredibly abusive thing to do and could well lead to violence against the people you are exposing. This would be completely unacceptable and incredibly hypocritical. It would essentially be state-sanctioned doxxing.

How many people have had false complaints sent to their employer about alleged online misbehaviour, as reportedly happened to Jess Barnard who was falsely accused of wanting a second holocaust?

There is no evidence to suggest ending online anonymity reduces online abuse. None whatsoever. And as someone who has large social media platforms and receives an incredible amount of abuse every day, I can categorically say lack of anonymity does not stop social media users being abusive at all.

But the thing is, we don't need to punish the many decent anonymous social media users. I know this is a crazy thought, but we can actually focus on punishing abusive accounts, regardless of whether they are anonymous. The anonymity, after all, is not the problem. The abusive behaviour is.

Let's not also forget that among the politicians who are calling for these changes is Jess Phillips who said she would knife Jeremy Corbyn in the front and Margaret Hodge who called him an antisemite and racist. As Michael Rosen pointed out, talk like this would get you expelled from the House of Commons for abuse. Yet, I'm sure both Hodge and Phillips would argue their abuse was justified in these particular circumstances. And that's the problem: in politics, the idea of abuse is entirely subjective.

What if I, for example, appeared in Jess Phillips' mentions and spoke of knifing her in the front? 

To be clear, I would never say such words because I would find them totally unacceptable and would never wish harm on Jess. But I'm sure Jess would consider those words abusive if they were aimed at her, and yet she was happy to aim them at Jeremy Corbyn on national television. It really does look like it's one rule for them and another for us.

Jess rather laughably wrote a book about speaking truth to power and yet here she is wanting to deprive you of the right to speak truth to power, using the exact same approach she herself uses. In a democracy, the right to dissent, to harshly criticise politicians is absolutely essential, and it's particularly essential that we maintain a level of transparency that allows us to see MP's voting records and expenses claims. We elected you and we're paying for those!

Let's not forget, we can do much better at punishing abusive accounts and we can give social media users much better privacy options.

I believe genuinely abusive social media accounts should receive punishment, but I also think those punishments should be fair and consistent. I am not, for example, in favour of permanent suspensions, apart from in the most extreme of circumstances. 

Social media is an essential component of modern life. You wouldn't be banned from walking on pavements for life because you misbehaved in the middle of the street one time. But you might get sent to prison for a few months, if the crime warranted it.

I would want social media giants to have a clearly-explained range of punishments for different offences so people can reasonably know what to expect if they misbehave, and are then given appropriate opportunity to correct their behaviour when their ban is lifted.

I would also want social media giants to give us a much better list of privacy options. 

For example, on Twitter I would like to see:

  • the ability to switch off quote-tweets or limit who can quote-tweet you
  • the ability to switch off comments and quote-tweets on specific tweets, even after you've sent the tweet
  • an optional verification process that is open to everyone, so any user can get a blue tick
  • the ability to limit who can interact with you to either just your own followers, followees or verified accounts on a tweet-by-tweet basis
  • the ability to automatically hide old tweets to prevent doxxing
All of these suggestions would help protect people against online abuse and give Twitter users far more flexibility with how they engage with the platform. It would also mean we don't have to hand over our passports to companies whose business models involve collecting and selling our data. Could you imagine where that might lead?

Imagine the government and employers keeping databases with people's political views and blacklisting certain individuals. Anyone familiar with the trade union movement knows that kind of thing has already happened many times and it has stopped people getting jobs.

Imagine MPs thinking they have a right to keep tabs on you, but you can't see what they're spending your taxes on, and can't even know how they voted in parliament! It's almost like the MP's expenses scandal from a decade ago never happened and these people aren't very keen on transparency actually.

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