The death of Sir David Amess MP and online anonymity

The murder of Sir David Amess MP has sparked a very necessary conversation on issues around online safety and abuse. But it’s vital we do not oversimplify the solutions. Here we set out why, and Glitch’s recommendations for change.

We are horrified by the murder of politician Sir David Amess MP while running his constituency surgery on Friday 15th October. Sir David was a public servant who dedicated his life’s work to bettering our democracy, and we have been particularly grateful for his interest in online safety. Our thoughts are with Sir David’s family, friends and colleagues.

Coming just a few years after the abhorrent killing of MP Jo Cox in 2016, Sir David’s death brings the issues of hate into sharp focus. While we do not yet know whether Sir David Amess’ killer was connected to online hate, the prevalence of online death threats aimed at fellow Members of Parliament and others in the public eye is an ongoing reality for many. While the draft Online Safety Bill is being discussed within our Parliament, we call for the bill to deliver improved safety for all online users who are currently subjected to online abuse and hate — particularly women.

Anonymity and Online Safety

We are, however, concerned by the growing narrative around online abuse following Friday’s attack. There have been calls for banning online anonymity outright as a solution to ending online abuse. We believe this to be dangerously simplified and could lead to further online harm and restrictions of freedom of expression.

At Glitch we know that online abuse is a huge societal issue, which is worse for women and especially women of colour, and for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Focusing on restricting anonymity is a distraction and will not address the numerous issues of:

· victims who receive online abuse and hate speech on platforms where ‘real name’ policies are in place (where accounts are aligned to names on forms of identification — yet abuse is still rife)

· the lack of coordination between social media platforms and the criminal justice system, including limited resources, training and understanding of online abuse

· platforms’ lack of accountability for sharing, amplifying and spreading online hate, through product design, such as algorithmic choice

· broken trust of users in both social platforms and police reporting of abuse and online threats, with users doubting that reports will lead to concrete action and consequences for perpetrators

Instead, we need instead to focus on and invest in the following key areas:

  • A public health approach to online abuse, so that as a society we better understand our roles and responsibilities when navigating the online space -which is the new public square — by increasing skills in identifying mis/dis/mal information, as well as increasing understanding of the offline consequences of perpetrating online hate and violence
  • Increased digital citizenship education and action; supporting those targeted with online harm, while understanding the tools and resources we have to decrease our exposure to harmful behaviours and educate those around us to be good digital citizens
  • Offline education that is decolonised, anti-racist, and anti-sexist across our school and university curricula, and more widely in society.

The Online Safety Bill has the potential to deliver much needed change to increase safety in our online spaces. While the current draft does not currently include any provisions around anonymity, we would urge politicians to continue to discuss these issues with the nuance we have seen in debates in the Commons chamber this year. We are shocked and appalled at the events that lead to Sir David’s death, and urge for a measured response to this ongoing issue that takes into account the complex nature of online anonymity, freedom of expression and our increasingly critical need to end online violence and abuse.

Our recommendations include the following.

The UK government should:

  • Strengthen the UK government’s draft Online Safety Bill, to ensure it drastically decreases levels of online abuse, which is particularly pernicious against women and women of colour
  • Ensure any amendments to the bill around anonymity strike a balance between improving accountability of perpetrators of online harm and traceability, while not damaging the use of pseudonyms online by online actors
  • View online gender-based violence as part of the wider violence against women agenda, and make appropriate links to existing equalities agendas.

Tech companies should:

  • End practices of algorithmic promotion of hateful content to users, and amplification of hate and other ‘controversial’ content, to increase profit over safety
  • Vastly improve partnership working with law enforcement to increase accountability when content is illegal as well as harmful
  • Improve systems for reporting abuse on platforms, decreasing the burden on users, and increase the quality of moderation
  • Treat online hatred, including gender-based violence, with as much emphasis as other issues (such as copyright violation and Covid disinformation) on platforms.

Glitch is an award-winning UK charity that is working to end online abuse — particularly against women and marginalised people.