Why banning anonymous accounts online won’t work — and Succession’s beautiful flaw

·3-min read
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

There is little that links the killing of MP Sir David Amess by a suspected terrorist to the behaviour of anonymous accounts online. Yet this is where the attention of policy makers has turned. The Prime Minister is now being lobbied by MPs to introduce “David’s Law”, which would ban anonymity on social media. Priti Patel has said in response that she wants to make some “big changes” on abuse and anonymity, and Dominic Raab has echoed her.

You can see why MPs, who are understandably feeling vulnerable — and who receive a daily truckload of online abuse — might want to head in this direction. But it’s a very bad idea.

The first thing to say is that not all anonymous accounts are trolls. In fact, some serve a very important social role. In oppressive regimes, anonymity is the only thing that permits the work of journalists and pro-democracy campaigners. (It’s not hard to imagine this new UK law being eagerly taken up by foreign autocracies, for very different reasons).

And even in this country the ability to post undercover helps whistleblowers, people whose political opinions might clash with those of their employers, families, or communities, and those who simply wish to separate their Twitter screeds about bin collection times from their professional lives.

Problems multiply when you start to think about how the law would be enforced. As it would only apply in the UK, citizens could simply work around it by posting from a platform based outside the country. Meanwhile, it implies entrusting social media companies with yet more personal information, in some sort of ID database. Privacy breaches are hardly rare.

But perhaps the biggest issue with the idea is that it won’t do much to stop abuse. In truth, anonymous accounts tend to be much smaller than identified ones and far less influential at instigating pile-ons. Ninety nine per cent of accounts Twitter suspended for abuse over the 2020 Euros were named ones. Whatever the disinhibition effect of anonymity, it is surely comparable to the feeling of being behind a screen and a mere member of a large mob.

In fact, the proposed ban could even make some abuse worse. A good part of the real-life damage social media causes is done when large, verified accounts decide to instigate pile-ons on smaller ones which have annoyed them — causing employers to be contacted, jobs lost and livelihoods ruined. Banning anonymity is not the answer.

In other news...

The problem with trying to satirise the rich and powerful is that their clothes are too nice

The problem with trying to satirise the rich and powerful on television is that their clothes are too nice. This struck me particularly when watching the (yes, excellent) first episode of the new series of Succession. Nearly all the characters are horrendous, of course — they are petty, narcissistic, ruthless, and this is all on display — but the lovingly filmed lavishness, the private jets, Rava’s ridiculous house, Shiv’s tailoring, managed to launder it all, in spite of everything, into something deeply aspirational.

A longstanding criticism of Julian Fellowes has been that any bite is taken out of his social satire because it’s so clear how much he loves his posh and snobby characters. But Fellowes’s problem is universal. How to de-glamourise the corrupt and opulent? Hire unattractive actors, dress them badly and hand them dull dialogue? It wouldn’t work, would it.

Do you think anonymity on social media would help stop abuse? Let us know in the comments below.

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