Yesterday, MPs gathered in Parliament to pay tributes to Sir David Amess MP. There were a number of moving contributions. I thought that both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition spoke particularly well. One particularly passionate and powerful speech came from back bencher Mark Francois. In it he called for MPs to remember Sir David by toughening up proposed legislation against online abuse and calling it “David’s Law.” He joined the call from others to ban anonymous social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc) from which people can troll and threaten public figures. Sir David Amess had been particularly concerned about the misogynistic treatment of women MPs especially following the murder of Jo Cox.
This was probably the one moment of controversy although MPS seemed united in their support for the proposal. Outside of parliament, others have observed two things. First of all, that our democracy is often at its most fragile in the aftermath of horrific incidents when knee jerk responses are tempting. When parliament unites around the theme that “something must be done.” The danger is that things are done that with better scrutiny we would have realised create more problems than they solve.
The other response has been that whilst there has been much said over the last few days about toxic culture, violent language and online abuse that those things did not in fact lead to David Amess’ death. There is no evidence to suggest that his murderer was influenced either by colourful language by politicians or twitter trolling. This is a good point, though in response it is perhaps worth saying that whilst something may not have been the direct cause of tragic events, those events may be shining light on a culture that shows up dark, unpleasant aspects of it that go beyond the immediate issue,
No, the death of David Amess does not seem to have been incited by MPs using language like scum or by people thinking it is okay to tweet abuse but his death has highlighted to us the kinds of things that people in public life experience that they shouldn’t. Later this week I’m going to say a bit more about violent language in public discourse. Today I want to respond a little bit more to the issue of anonymity.
As someone who writes a blog and then contributes to further discussion around topics covered on social media, I’ve been witness to and on the receiving end of some unpleasant stuff. Usually it stops at name-calling though it is worth noting that some of the stuff said is slanderous. Others suffer far worse. Indeed the most horrific examples are the abuse including disturbingly violent and sexualised comments to women.
Now, in many cases those who engage in such behaviour are identified and known. However, there are plenty who make their attacks from behind anonymous accounts. Indeed, I found it ironic throughout COVID that some of the most aggressive campaigning against masks came from those who were very happy to wear masks online. So I have some sympathy with the view that keep their own identity concealed shouldn’t be free to trash the reputation or threaten the person of others.
The problem is this. Sometimes there are good reasons for people to remain anonymous. First of all, there are people who because of the sensitive nature of their work or because they have themselves experienced abuse and attack feel it necessary to protect their identity from the general public. Indeed, it is sometimes the very women who are targeted by trolls who understandably wish to protect their identity and may no longer feel safe to participate in online conversation without such protection. There are others who are concerned about identity theft and finally, there are those who remain anonymous for lighter reasons. My time online has been enriched by the contributions of many spoof and satirical twitter accounts. Long may that continue!
So, things are not as simplistic as to bring in a law banning anonymous accounts. What then can we do? Well, first of all, I would like to see Twitter and Facebook take greater responsibility for what is published on their platforms. Currently it is possible t report tweets for conduct which goes against Twitter’s policies. However, it can be surprising to discover what is considered against their policies and what isn’t. It isn’t for example possible to report something that is untrue and libellous. It isn’t possible to provide detail expressing your concerns. Additionally, Twitter doesn’t account for the possibility that harassment may take place through low level but persistent behaviour where each individual tweet stays within their rules but the combined effect of weeks of harassment can be significant on the mental health and well-being of others.
Secondly, we need to take responsibility for our own behaviour online. Speaking as a Christian I would encourage fellow believers and particular pastors and elders to consider how accountable we are for what we say and do. Pastors would do well to ask their fellow elders to check in on what they are saying via social media. In the context of concerns being raised about high profile bullying and abuse cases, we need to take seriously the issue of online bullying, abuse and slander.
On a side note, one of the most disturbing and disgraceful things to emerge from a recent book on the John Smyth scandal was the naming of one vicar as a victim in the book forcing him to speak publicly about his experience. When the author’s actions in “outing” a victim against their wishes was challenged, the defence came back that his identity had been known and speculated on in online forums. No! That was no excuse and does not make things better. There is a huge difference between someone of their own volition coming forward as a witness to their own experience and the kind of speculation and gossip that happens in online forums without them necessarily being aware of it.
Thirdly, we do need to look at anonymous accounts. Part of that means that there should at least be what used to be called a gentleman’s agreement that those who seek the protection of anonymity should not from that place of personal safety launch sustained attacks and campaigns against the reputation of others. Now, there are times when victims and whistle-blowers need to be able to bring their concerns to appropriate investigating authorities in confidence but twitter and Facebook are not that appropriate authority and raising an issue confidentially is not the same as running a personal campaign from behind the mask of anonymity.
Finally, then, whilst it should be possible for people to run accounts where their personal details are not shared, I believe that it should not be possible to run such an account without it being possible to trace who is behind the account. Whilst this information should not be displayed, it should not be possible to open an account on social media without providing enough personal details such that should you need to be traced and contacted then you can be.
However, whilst we can change all the laws we like and some changes will be helpful, we also need to remember that we cannot police hearts and minds except our own. Nor can we legislate away sin and evil. As a Christian them, my responsibility is to contribute to an online culture that is different, to be “salt and light” online as well as offlline.