Unmask internet trolls’ real identities to prevent abuse, MP argues

Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, has suggested that disclosure of real identities to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook could help fight abuse directed at victims online.

At the Cheltenham Science Festival, Gloucestershire, Phillips discussed how social media could be reclaimed from people using the platforms to hurl abuse at others. This practice is popularly referred to as “trolling” (a term which originally had a different, less insidious meaning).

Phillips has been subjected to extensive abuse on Twitter and other platforms; she described having received 600 rape threats in a single evening and being threatened with violence every day to the point that she stopped counting the incidents. As a left-of-centre woman politician who frequently speaks out on issues of social justice, Phillips is among the most popular targets for trolls in the UK and has been targeted by trolls from the left and right.

If you speak as a feminist, she said: “You will suffer a huge amount of internet trolling”. While she was able to treat the abuse as “water off a duck’s back”, she said that this behaviour could have a harmful effect on democracy by discouraging people from becoming involved in politics.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life published a report last year warning that trolls could be deterring women from entering politics and other public roles.

“I have to say I don’t feel I am physically in any danger and I don’t think my children are in any danger,” said Phillips. “However, where it does worry me […] is when it affects our democracy.”

Phillips suggested that this abuse could be lessened if users were forced to disclose their real identities to social media companies.

“I personally have come to the viewpoint that I don’t think people should be allowed to be completely anonymous online anymore. I don’t mind if people appear online for all sorts of really reasonable reasons,” she added that some groups of people – such as whistleblowers – had a genuine need to remain anonymous online.

She suggested that rather than making the identities of all social media users public, users could be required to disclose their identities to Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies as a safety precaution.

Phillips comments follow a speech made by Prime Minister Theresa May at the G7 summit, in which she called on internet companies to work harder to prevent the “vile” harassment of women online. May suggested that tools already used to remove extremist content could also be deployed to target virulent, violent misogyny online.

Meanwhile, Ben Wallace, the Minister for Security, has suggested that internet users should be issued with digital IDs which render them traceable if they engage in bullying and abusive behaviour online.

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