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Naming the nameless: would an end to social media anonymity burst the bubbles of hatred?

October 26, 2020

Jeremy Clarkson has a point. I don’t always agree with the stuff he writes, but the idea that one way to stop the divisiveness caused by platforms such as Twitter is to “remove the cloak of anonymity behind which social media users can hide” definitely deserves to be chewed over.

Speaking from my middle-class, middle-English perspective, I’ve always thought there are two activities that are most likely to strip the veneer of civilisation away from supposedly ordinary people. One is driving a car, which allows a person gripped by road rage to turn feral. The other is buying and selling property. What they have in common is that both happen under Clarkson’s cloak of anonymity.

In the case of furious drivers, unless they turn murderous, you might only see them screaming obscenities and giving you multiple fingers for some perceived infraction. But if your windows are up, you won’t hear them and usually in a few seconds they’re gone, leaving you equally furious at their bad manners.

House buyers and sellers usually operate at an arm’s length through an intermediary – an estate agent or a lawyer. You may meet them, but you’re unlikely to to know anything more than their names. You may not even know where they live. This enables them to behave disgracefully: gazumping, gazundering and pulling out of transactions with impunity.

What both activities have in common is that they allow people to behave disgracefully without consequences, though dashcams are increasingly being used to hold really naughty drivers to account. Unfortunately, when we bought our house a couple of decades ago, we were unable to do anything about the seller, who, weeks after the price had been agreed, on the morning of the sale, suddenly demanded a substantial uplift for no reason other than that she could.

To these two categories of individual who routinely break norms of civilised behaviour, I add a third: internet trolls.

There are certainly people who use an assumed name for a reason other than a desire to spill poison into the public domain to their heart’s content. Perhaps they fear the wrath of their employers, or the disapproval of friends and family for their views.

But leaving them aside, would the anonymous authors of the most vicious, hate-filled stuff you sometimes see on Twitter and other platforms be happy to stand up and take ownership of what they say by identifying themselves? If not, why not? And what if Twitter and other social media operators announced that they were no longer allowing people to shield under aliases?

They wouldn’t do it voluntarily. They would cite all kind of reasons why people fear to use their own names. Political oppression, perhaps. Freedom of speech, on the basis that some people can’t speak freely under their own names. They would refer to the Iranian protests of 2009, and the Egyptian revolution during the Arab Spring. They would point to the role they played in enabling protesters to speak up.

Fair enough, except that these days, if I was a dissident in either of those countries I wouldn’t dare to use Twitter in case the authorities discovered my identity by fair means or foul. After all, it was only a couple of years ago that another powerful Middle East country made use of a mole inside the company. That person duly revealed the identities of some critics of the regime. Our faith in the impenetrability of the security systems run by social media giants is surely at an all-time low.

Clarkson, writing in yesterday’s Sunday Times, contends that previously stable democracies are disintegrating as the result of groups of people in their social media bubbles referring only to what is fed into those bubbles, often by anonymous agitators. Whoever is behind QAnon is probably the epitome of such actors.

So here’s a new version of an age-old conundrum. Is it better to unmask the liars, the hate spreaders, the conspiracy theorists and the psychopaths who contribute to the toxic polarisation of our societies, and accept a certain limit on our freedom of speech, or should we just let them have at it, even if it means in the long term that they might help to unleash the dogs of war?

Should we sacrifice the liberty of people who want to be anonymous for what we might accept are good reasons in order to suppress the activities of people who are operating at the very edge of the law, or possibly even beyond it?

The problem is that there are laws and laws. Speaking against the regime might be illegal in some countries, whereas in the UK the law regulating free speech is mainly confined to statutes that make hate speech a criminal offense, and common law that provides a civil remedy for libel.

Twitter is a US business. Like Facebook, it is subject to US law, which is underpinned by a constitution that under most circumstances guarantees the right to free speech. If it ended anonymity for its users, lawyers would doubtless have field day debating whether a private company was violating rights under the First Amendment by changing its policy on anonymity, especially if it claimed that it was not preventing free speech as such, merely the ability to do so under an assumed name.

It would also fear that many of its users would leave the platform and go underground to encrypted platforms, as some already have.

But if the United States were threatened with an actual civil war, as evidenced by calls to arms and incitement to violence, I wouldn’t bet against Congress trying to enact a law banning anonymity, with the possible exception of current rules that protect government whistle-blowers.

Would I go along with such a measure in the UK? Possibly, even though in my country there aren’t more guns than people, which makes the prospect of civil insurrection less likely than in the United States.

But would it be the right thing to do? In the hands of a government intent on suppressing free speech, a law banning anonymity in the social media would be a potent weapon, since it would open those who speak up to retaliation by one means or another. One only has to look at the number of people working in the National Health Service who have spoken to the press about the British government’s alleged abandonment of old people during the COVID crisis earlier this year. Most have spoken on condition of anonymity for fear of falling foul of their employer.

It’s possible that if the objective is to heal social divisions, we’re picking the wrong target by blaming sad people with few friends spewing bitterness from the safety of a back room in their homes. Should we not concentrate our efforts on eliminating the replicants implanted among them in the form of bots created by foreign governments that seek to weaken their adversaries by fostering chaos and confusion?

We should also recognise that most of the influential voices responsible for spreading the hatred are far from anonymous. Alex Jones, David Icke, Nigel Farage, Tucker Carlson and yes, Donald Trump, are more than happy to put their names to the stuff they disseminate. In fact, their egos and livelihoods depend on it. But it’s the foot-soldiers following in their wake that give them power. And many of those followers are not prepared to stand up and be counted.

Perhaps the problem of divisive social media content is for society to address, not the law. But we come back to the original conundrum of how we effectively aim our disapproval of the activities of people who can act with impunity at an arm’s length. And, given that people within social media bubbles eagerly embrace malign, false and divisive content, who “we” actually are. And how close we are to the point where those “we” think of as insane take over the asylum.

This is not an academic discussion. In a couple of week’s time we might look across the Atlantic and find a partisan divide erupting into a full-blown constitutional crisis. And in the UK, how close are we to a serious breakdown in law and order among people who are at their wits end as the result of a second COVID crisis?

I don’t have an answer. But under most circumstances, I have no more respect for those who don’t have the courage to speak under their own names than I had back in the day for those who used to send their neighbours poison-pen letters.

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