Clean up the Internet took part in a fascinating discussion at the Byline Festival on 23rd August. Clean up the Internet founder, Stephen Kinsella was joined by TechCrunch editor-at-large Mike Butcher, Behavioural Scientist Caroline Orr, and Actor and Activist Taniel Yusef for a conversation titled “Net Losers: social media, anonymity and the issue of trust”.
The discussion couldn’t have been more timely, taking place amid renewed controversy about the role of anonymity in racist abuse on Twitter, after abuse directed at Manchester City’s Paul Pogba led to his teammates calling for Twitter to crack down on anonymous users. Stephen noted that suddenly everyone from Harry Maguire to Ash Sakar was critiquing the role of anonymity.
The other panelists all offered different perspectives, but there was consensus that status quo wasn’t working. Taniel, in the chair, introduced the session by sharing her own experience of deciding to stop using Twitter altogether. Caroline shared her perspective as an analyst of disinformation tactics, and as a prominent woman on twitter subjected to her own share of misogynist abuse. Mike set out why he thought the tech companies were reluctant to act and why regulation would be required to get the tech companies to change their behaviour.
Until relatively recently you might have expected Stephen to meet quite a sceptical response at a festival like Byline. The orthodoxy that online anonymity should be defended at all costs has held sway for a long time. And investigative journalists, tech entrepreneurs and activists are all well-placed to understand the uses of anonymity, and well-versed in the theories often cited in its defense.
However, Stephen’s proposals were cautiously welcomed and explored with interest by both the panel and members of the audience. How could it work in practice, not to “ban” anonymity entirely, but instead to manage it, restricting the ability of anonymous users to abuse their position? Would it work to make tech companies more accountable for the actions of their anonymous users? It was clear from the other panelists, and from the comments and questions from the audience, that the downsides of unrestricted, unmanaged anonymity are becoming impossible to ignore.