Over the past few years I regularly had conversations with friends and colleagues regarding what we saw as a steep decline in the level of discourse online. Being myself a keen user of Twitter as well as a reader online of newspaper articles and the comments that feature below them, it seemed to me that people were getting more angry, more quickly. Exchanges often descended into abusive comments that had little to do with the supposed underlying discussion. When I first came onto Twitter, we mostly used it for flagging our own or others’ achievements, exchanging jokes and indulging in awful puns. But something had changed. Going online was increasingly a wearing experience. Quite apart from abusive or insulting comments, it was also getting harder to have a constructive conversation because total strangers could pile in and disrupt it without being challenged.
Of course Brexit seemed to have played a significant part in this, as had a hardening of partisan lines. But we wondered whether the increasingly toxic online arguments were just a symptom, or whether there was something particular about the online experience that encouraged abusive behaviour and/or the adoption of more extreme positions.
As we looked into this, one aspect that struck us was that much of the bad behaviour or extreme views seemed to come from individuals who were hiding behind pseudonyms or avatars. Not always of course, and we do also see serial trolls who are happy to declare their identities. However our collective experience was that the majority of troubling comments were from “anonymous” accounts. It seemed that being able to hide behind an alias had a disinhibiting effect upon people who would generally think twice about openly behaving in such unpleasant ways.
This led me to suggest that perhaps some modest change in the way in which we allow people to present themselves online might offer at least a partial solution. The conclusion we came to was that there might be circumstances in which the right to be anonymous should be restricted or conditioned.
I wanted to tread cautiously in this area because I recognise that there are many circumstances in which anonymity is important. Quite aside from political dissidents and whistleblowers, the Internet provides a wonderful opportunity for the dissemination of views without needing to reveal one’s identity and be exposed to undue scrutiny. I strongly believe that needs to be preserved. However I am not sure that we are striking the right balance if anonymous accounts can barge into the conversations of others and disrupt or effectively shut down those conversations.
I have therefore decided to invite others to join me in putting together an organisation which will campaign for measures to raise the level of discourse online and to achieve this in particular by encouraging operators of online sites and platforms to limit the abuse of anonymity. We will seek to do this consensually but if that proves unsuccessful we are willing to campaign for legislation.