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Free countries should make online anonymity socially unacceptable

Anonymity encourage intemperate and abusive speech, and the propagation of falsehoods. We should refuse to engage with anonymous accounts.

Posted 19 January 2020

I was recently reminded of how much abusive language one encounters on social media, and in "below the line" comments on newspaper website articles.

I devoted my 53rd"Thought for the Week" this morning on BBC Radio Manchester to this subject.

I always try to avoid the approach of saying "Somebody should do something..." Instead, I prefer to focus on what people themselves can do to make things better. Accordingly I advocate leading by example. You can read the text of my talk below.

I am referring entirely to anonymity in free societies. When countries are not free, citizens may be arrested and jailed for what they say online, and there is often a real need for anyonymity. In Britain, we are free to criticise those in power without such concerns, and I often do.

Thought for the Week

When I was young, publishers were people who owned newspapers or TV stations. Today, with blogs, uploaded videos, social media and online comments, everyone who uses the internet is a publisher.

In many ways, that is good. All of us can now speak to the world; not just those with power and money. However, there is also a serious downside.

The comments below online newspaper articles are often full of hatred. Twitter gets used to bully people and to spread fake stories. The more extreme and inflammatory your words, the more likely you are to have them shared onwards by others.

I think a big factor in the growth of such hate-filled writing is anonymity. People say things anonymously which they would never say if everyone knew it was them saying it. At one time, sending an anonymous hate letter meant cutting words out of a newspaper, gluing them into a letter, and then secretly posting it. Today, spreading anonymous hate is easy.

What can we do about it?

Before trying to fix others, it is always best to fix yourself. From the day I started on social media, or started writing comments below newspaper articles, I have had a simple policy.

Everything I write has my real name with it, and my real photograph. Knowing I cannot hide makes me write responsibly and carefully.

If you set the same example yourself, we can start to make anonymity socially unacceptable. If you ignore everything that is anonymous, never share it, and never respond to it, then we can start to drive online anonymity out of our society.

 

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