A cure for trolling is surely staring us in the face

If mobile service providers and the internet giants are really serious about this problem they themselves have the wherewithal to stop it

Simon Kelner
Friday 18 December 2015 16:17
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Why is not possible to prevent users of any social network, or those who leave comments on news sites, from being anonymous?
Why is not possible to prevent users of any social network, or those who leave comments on news sites, from being anonymous?

Heckling a comedian used to be something of a noble pursuit. The heckler would try to outdo the person on stage with a practised quip, or simply a volley of abuse. Either way, the house lights would train on the heckler while the comedian, who had the both the microphone in his hand and the audience on his side, would come up with a put-down that would often focus on a physical imperfection of the heckler. Cue wild applause. It was a transparent exchange, all out in the open, and this has been one of the age-old rituals of the stand-up comedy circuit.

Imagine if everyone who went to a comedy show (or indeed any public event, like a political meeting, for example) was allowed to wear a disguise, and had his or her anonymity protected. How uninhibited would they be then in their contributions? The abuse would be much more direct, much more personal. It would be like a free-for-all where anything goes, no matter how vile or indeed threatening the discourse may be.

That perfectly describes the internet, a realm where everyone can choose to be cloaked in a false identity. Kate Smurthwaite is a stand-up comedian whose strident approach to gender politics will not be to everyone’s taste. But, in the way of the modern world, it’s not your average critical scrutiny that she has had to withstand: she’s been subjected to a campaign of abuse of jaw-dropping virulence on social media.

She has spoken out courageously and articulately about this vilification, which includes everything from physical insults to all sorts of unconscionable threats of sexual violence, and believes that more people should report these offences, and that the police should be better trained to deal with them. Meanwhile, Yvette Cooper, the Labour backbench MP, is demanding that there is a crackdown on sexist online trolls. Ms Cooper says the effect of this misogynistic bullying is to drown out women’s voices, and compares this with the struggle of the Suffragettes.

Other eminent women who suffered at the hands of online bullies are the historian Mary Beard, the comedian and TV presenter Sue Perkins, but of course everyone, man or woman, adult or child, famous or not, who interacts on social media puts themselves at the mercy of someone with a digital device and a malevolent intent.

The answer, it seems to me, is quite obvious, and doesn’t rely on putting our limited police resources on the case. If mobile service providers and the internet giants are really serious about this problem – and it’s not just hollow words they spout – they themselves have the wherewithal to stop it.

Why is not possible to prevent users of any social network, or those who leave comments on news sites, from being anonymous? The contract that a user must make when they post a message is that they reveal their identity. If you want to travel abroad, you need a passport. If you want to post, you must say who you are. I simply don’t see who will lose out, other than those who want the security of a disguise to hurl a verbal hand grenade at an unsuspecting target. Heckle as much as you want, but let’s see who you are.

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