Charlie Elphicke is MP for Dover and Deal.
Hate-tweeting trolls make people’s lives hell. They’ve got out of hand on social media and we need to crack down on it. Yet, to paraphrase Tony Blair, we cannot just be tough on hate-tweeting, we must be tough on the causes of hate-tweeting, too. We should target the anonymity hate-tweeters use to harass people online. At the moment it’s just too easy to set up a bogus account and viciously stab at people from behind the curtain. Ensuring people can’t set up anonymous accounts would mean hate-tweeters would be forced to be responsible for the hate they spew.
We need to promote kindness, courtesy and being yourself. When you bump into someone in the street you exchange pleasantries. You engage in banter down the pub. What you don’t do is pretend to be someone else, hurl abuse or make threats without consequence. So why does anyone think it’s OK to act like that on the internet?
Well known figures have been victims of these trolls. The McCann family has been subject to revolting anonymous hate-tweeting abuse. Labour MP Stella Creasy has been the target of horrific online threats. There are other MPs who are suffering from racist harassment too dreadful to report.
Yet the problem is more widespread – particularly for young people. According to Childline, 4,500 young people talked to the charity about online bullying last year, an 87 per cent rise on the previous year. The anti-bullying charity, Ditch the Label, surveyed over 10,000 young people in 2013, finding that 69 per cent of young people had experienced cyberbullying at some point. 37 per cent had experienced cyberbullying on a highly frequent basis and a shocking 20 per cent on a daily basis. We need to consider the world our children are going to grow up and live in. We need to hand over an internet that is as great, safe and secure as it can be.
Chris Grayling’s plans for serious cases of cyberbullying and online harassment to be passed up to Crown Court are a good start. This would allow the maximum sentence to be quadrupled from 6 months to 2 years. It’s an important first step to severely punish those found guilty of online abuse and threats.
Yet we should go further. People must take responsibility for their actions and not have the option of anonymity. We cracked down on poison pen letters and we dealt with ‘deep breathers’ on telephones. Now we need to deal with the trolls and cowards who use anonymity to spout vitriol online. There are three things we can do to tackle the problem:
1. Tackling online anonymity
Evidence suggests that people’s behaviour becomes worse when users are given anonymity. The anonymity needs to end. Social media providers should ensure they know the identity of people to discourage hate-filled attacks. If they know who they are, people won’t go around doing this. Nor will they be able to create multiple social media accounts to further their hate campaigns.
There are some who will claim this undermines the principle of free speech. They are wrong. It’s an insult to all those who fought for our right to speak out. Free speech is not there to protect people who spread hate while hiding their identity. The whole point of free speech is the right to speak freely in your own name. There is also a big difference between the privacy of surfing the internet and claiming “privacy” in aid of anonymity to launch attacks on people. There should be no hiding place for the trolls.
2. Educating Children on Digital Responsibilities
We cannot protect children by simply blocking access to social media sites. Young people are at the forefront of technological change. We need to educate them that their behaviour online will be judged just as much as it is in real life. Just as we teach citizenship and British values in schools, so should we educate young people about their online responsibilities and the importance of respect.
3. International Action to Co-ordinate Standards
The internet is changing all the time. Social media have barely existed for a decade. The law needs to keep up with this rapid change. The Internet knows no borders. So it’s right there should be international co-ordinated action. The OECD could play a serious role here. Rogue nations that harbour trolls and online criminals can be tackled more effectively with international co-ordination.
It has become increasingly clear that it’s time to strip anonymity, educate our children about digital responsibilities and hammer home the message: hate-tweeting is wrong and if you abuse people anonymously from behind your keyboard you will be found out. That would stop the people who con, threaten and terrorise in their tracks. We must take back the Internet from the weirdos, the trolls and the cowardly.