The horrific murder of sitting MP Sir David Amess on Friday has united the country in shock. Much like Jo Cox’s murder 5 years ago, it has also raised fundamental questions about the tension between the public’s right to have access to democratically elected politicians, versus the right of MPs to be safe while working in an increasingly fractious political landscape.
Rather surprisingly though, Priti Patel focused on an entirely different concern when discussing the terrible events this weekend — that of online anonymity. According to the Home Secretary, social media users could face a ban on anonymous accounts as a means to prevent radicalisation on line. To most people, this would seem like a non-sequitur; while the investigation is still in its preliminary stages, reports suggest that Ali Harbi Ali was known to the authorities, and had already been referred to Prevent, a counterterrorism scheme, following concerns regarding his behaviour.
It is hard to see how removing online anonymity would have made any difference to Mr Ali’s case. Even the argument that online anonymity encourages hate isn’t quite true. Facebook, which introduced a “Real Name” policy in 2014, remains a hotbed for abuse, with one report describing it as being responsible for 94% of 69 million child sex abuse images. Another survey found that 39% of women reported were harassed on the platform. It seems banning anonymity has done almost nothing to make Facebook a better, safer place.
There are also many reasons why a user may need to be anonymous. Many employers operate strict social media codes, which would make it impossible for employees to openly share any political views in public. Whistleblowers very often cannot speak out under their real name for fear of identification and reprisals.
So who does a “real name” policy most affect? The vulnerable. Online anonymity allows vulnerable and marginalised people to participate online, and to find support from others. Groups such as LGBT+, as well as victims of domestic violence and sexual assault depend upon anonymity to keep them safe. This is more important than ever considering that rates of stalking and cyberstalking increased significantly during lockdown, with some charities reporting a 40% rise in the number of victims. It is now estimated that 1.5 million people in England and Wales are victims of stalking every year, and for many of them, online anonymity may well be their only safety net.
Even ideas to try and mitigate these issues can be problematic. For instance, social media platforms requiring users to give their ID for it to be stored on a database and not displayed to other users has major privacy issues. A database of identities would be invaluable to hackers, which, given the ever-growing number of social media data breaches, makes it doubtful that personal details would ever be truly safe.
By all means, we should have a discussion about security and politicians. But removing the right to anonymity for innocent, vulnerable people is a grim response that uses a tragedy as a smokescreen for stripping away basic civil liberties. It is important that these terrible events are not weaponised as justification for policies which, at best, would have done nothing to prevent this murder, and at worse, will hurt many at-risk people.