Online Anonymity — [Esther McVey in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:40 pm on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 2:40 pm, 13th January 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey.

I thank Damian Hinds for securing the debate and his excellent stand-in, Siobhan Baillie, for a compelling and comprehensive introduction to why we are debating this subject today and why we need to take more action. As she said, we now live in a world where online interaction plays an ever more important role in our lives. It seems likely that when we get some normality back, online communication will still play a huge role, particularly in the world of politics.

I confess that I use Twitter. If I were not a politician, I probably would not, but it is a useful way to get a message across to a wide audience, as quickly as possible. I start from the basis that anything that helps us to communicate with the world has to be a good thing, but that has its downsides. As we have heard, it is a cesspit of abuse, hate and harassment that would not be acceptable in any other walk of life. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, that has real-life consequences. The appalling statistic that she read out, about 47% of teenagers having seen something they wish they had not seen during the first lockdown, is concerning and something that we should be looking to stamp out. She described it as the wild west; that is a thought that has crossed my mind a few times, because it seems that, like the wild west, there are no rules, no norms and no standards. That is surely not what we want to see in what should be a positive thing for the whole world.

I get a bit of abuse directed at me, like every Member, I suspect. It is nowhere near the appalling level that some Members get. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, most of the Members who get the worst abuse are women, because these trolls are often misogynist and prejudiced. They use their anonymity to project their hate on to those people. I do not mind a bit of robust debate; that is what democracy needs, but, as we saw over the pond last week, there is a line that can have serious consequences when crossed.

In my mind, there is a correlation between some of the most extreme abuse online and the anonymity of its authors. They say things they would not dream of saying to somebody’s face, and they do it behind a cloak of anonymity because they are cowards. They are inadequate people. I imagine that if the people who received the abuse read it back to them, they would feel ashamed of what they had said. They say things that they would not dream of saying to a person’s face because they have the security of a keyboard and a monitor in front of them, which seems to mean to them that there is no limit to what they can say.

Because everything online is there for us all to see, it has an impact—on occasion, a devastating one, as we have head. It is the modern equivalent of taking out a full-page advert in a newspaper. It is my view that when people are given platforms, the providers of those platforms have a responsibility to ensure that they are not abused.

I will give an example of someone who tends to post abusive posts to me most days, usually in reply to a tweet I have sent. I am not going to give them the oxygen of publicity that they obviously desperately crave by repeating what they say, but when I see those tweets they are often lies, usually highly defamatory ones. I click on the report button on Twitter, so that they are aware of my objections. Regrettably, I end up having to report that person’s tweets most days. Do I ever get any kind of response from Twitter? No, I do not. I do not know whether hon. Members have ever tried to speak to someone at Twitter or even find an email address, but it seems that it specialises in not making itself approachable. For a communications company, it is pretty awful at communicating with people who want to talk to it.

That is the point: it seems that Twitter is indifferent to the problems that its platform creates. Yes, on a few high-profile occasions it acts, but the majority of the time the most heinous lies, the most disgusting abuse and the worst forms of harassment carry on unchecked because there are no consequences for it as an organisation. If it were a newspaper, it would be sued continually and would have gone bankrupt a long time ago, but because our laws are yet to catch up with the technology, it continues to be a vehicle for lies and abuse. I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud: there needs to be much stronger regulation. The amount of fake news that has been spread during the coronavirus outbreak should be the prompt for us no longer to delay introducing the legislation we need to create some kind of accountability for the consequences of the words transmitted by these platforms.

Finally, I just want to say something about how we conduct ourselves, because we have a role in this. We must take a lead and be responsible. I have to say that the way debates are conducted in this place is always respectful and courteous. Of course, people occasionally lose their cool, but there is always an apology afterwards. That should be the standard that we want to see outside this place—not just for ourselves but for everyone involved in politics. When we see those standards slip, we should not hesitate to call it out.