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Tue 19 November 2019
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Steve Kinsella argues that anonymity has its limitations and, to protect free speech for real people, verification should have real benefits.


Have you ever wondered why so many news sites (like Byline Times) don’t enable comments and discussion on their websites? Not so long ago, that would have seemed bizarre. Why wouldn’t any news outlet encourage discussion of its articles on its own website? 

The fact that not doing so feels like a sensible choice, the progressive choice, in 2019 underlines the terrible state of online discourse. There seems to be widespread agreement that we have a problem. What used to be an open space for the exchange of opinions, news and jokes has gradually become less welcoming and more confrontational.

Many individuals… now find it almost impossible to raise their heads above the ‘virtual parapet’ before receiving a torrent of vitriol and obscenity.

The rise in the incidence of abusive and threatening language online is the aspect of this online culture which, at presented, receives the most focus. Many individuals, particularly from certain groups or genders, now find it almost impossible to raise their heads above the ‘virtual parapet’ before receiving a torrent of vitriol and obscenity. 

Another issue is how difficult it can be to have a constructive exchange without trolls piling in and taking the conversation off track, swamping it in irrelevance, invective or misinformation.


Signal Interference and Censorship

These twin problems of abuse and interference are most manifest in social networks but also appear in the comments pages of newspapers.

The cumulative effect is to deter many from even beginning to engage online, acting as a form of censorship of voices that deserve to be heard. This is very problematic. A functioning public sphere needs constructive debate; the ability to build understanding and consensus to tackle the urgent challenges we face.

Concern about these issues has led to a team of us setting up an initiative which we have modestly entitled Clean Up The Internet, which was formally launched at the 2019 Byline Festival in August. 

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We have also made a submission to the Government’s consultation on its Online Harms White Paper, in which we put forward a range of suggestions as to how to tackle some of the abuses.

In doing so, we focused on one aspect of the internet which can be both a blessing and a curse: the ability of individuals to have an anonymous presence online. Is there a way to preserve the real benefits of anonymity while restricting its abuse?


Not in My Name

The conclusion we reached can best be described by reference to Twitter. I am on Twitter using my real name and a photo. But, I could also if I wished, set up an anonymous or pseudonymous account and there may be many good reasons why I would want to do that.  

There might be opinions I would like to express without embarrassing or challenging my family or my employer. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to express them? If others on Twitter want to follow me and to retweet or like my posts, so that they reach a wider audience, that is a matter for them. 

A cloak of anonymity can produce real benefits to society if it allows whistle-blowers, dissidents or persecuted groups to communicate their views.

One can easily see that such a cloak of anonymity can also produce real benefits to society if it allows whistle-blowers, dissidents or persecuted groups to communicate their views.

However, returning to the example of my anonymous account, should I be able to go beyond creating my own posts? If two journalists are having a discussion on Twitter about a matter of public interest concerning the media, should I be able to anonymously pile uninvited into their conversation, either with offensive jibes or merely making unfounded claims that quite deliberately have the effect of ruining their exchange?

They could always block me, but I could be back minutes later from another unverified account, forcing them to block me again. And why should they serially have to block trolls?

What do I have to say that is of such value that I need to do it anonymously, even though they haven’t solicited my views?

I think we need to strike a sensible balance, recognising that anonymity can have a seriously disinhibiting effect. When most Twitter users know they are identifiable, they take more care about the views they express. 

Furthermore, it is far easier to know whether to attach any weight to the claims that people make online – such as “I voted Remain but now want to Leave because of how Brussels has been bullying us” – if they can be checked against previous views expressed by that person, or whether they are even based in the country they claim to be tweeting from.


Trust and Verification

Our proposal is that anonymous Twitter accounts should have a lesser level of permission to use the platform. They should be able to broadcast but not to intrude on the conversations of others who have accepted more accountability for the views they express, unless those others have specifically chosen to hear from them. 

Similarly, we should also question what great benefit is served by allowing wholly unaccountable users to fill the comments section of newspaper sites.

A major benefit of this approach is that it would focus on the chosen status of the user of the platform, rather than getting into difficult issues of trying to ‘censor’ particular language and would give that power to the users rather than the platforms.

Of course, while we have come to a diagnosis, we accept that the prescription needs more debate, which is why we are starting this conversation. 

We have many ideas on how to balance the competing interests and how, for instance, to ensure that privacy is still protected and that information given for verification is not exploited for profiling and targeted advertising. We would like to hear from all interested parties who support our broad aim of both preserving access for all viewpoints, while trying to preserve civility and accuracy in online discourse.

If you have views to express, please get in touch with us by visiting www.cleanuptheinternet.org.uk or on Twitter @InternetClean

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