We are regrettably navigating our way through times where emotions and the fear that drives them are having a disproportionate level of influence on what government and society collectively does.
Knee jerk reactions and decision making are the order of the day. Rather than reasoned, well thought out and methodical thinking that brings its rewards. Not through the extinguishing of immediate baseless worries, but by achieving the results that are right but unlikely to be clear at that precise moment in time.
There is no way to describe the murder of an MP in the middle of his local constituency clinic held in a church in any way other than being absolutely horrific. But there is also a significant danger that the emotional and fear driven responses to this dreadful event we are now witnessing may push immediate changes to public policy that could prove to be highly damaging to our society.
Those with a public voice within the discussion and debate taking place haven’t paused to consider just how raw emotions now are – including their own.
Taking a deep breath and counting to ten before thinking through the wider dynamics and consequences of the decisions they are now pushing would be a much better and more productive approach for us all.
Of the issues remerging between tackling Islamic extremism and the security of public representatives, both physically and online, it is the topic of online anonymity which seems to be shining through as the one where the crowd has focused its finger of blame.
As yet, and as may never be proven to be the case, there is no clear or overwhelming evidence yet that online anonymity even played a part in radicalising the individual who allegedly committed this crime, if as suggested, extremism was the motivating cause.
To hear or read the way the issue is being addressed by the public court of opinion, you could easily conclude that this is not the case. That the series of events and the way they unfolded are already unequivocally known by all, and that it is as such fair to conclude that online anonymity must be ended for all.
However, as with most situations, the question of whether having to identify yourself and who you are must be a requirement to have any kind of voice on an online public platform is a long way from being black or white or cut and dried.
There is a real problem with online trolling, abuse, woke activism and ‘piling-in’ from social media accounts that do nothing to identify the source or who is involved.
As things stand, setting up one or multiple anonymous social media accounts is very easy. There are no real systems or procedures in place to stop anyone who knows how the online platform sign-up processes work from using a range of user identities. They can do so simply to attack or criticise others, to publicise fake news or propaganda, or to build up very successful campaigns that could radicalise, promote conspiracies or built upon nothing but a tissue of lies.
Whilst the Police or Security Services can of course trace sources using IP addresses and other methods too, the reliance upon this system of reverse-engineering the process to find people who have broken existing laws or need to be warned puts an unnecessary burden on already stretched resources. That is of course if the alleged offence is considered troubling enough to be pursued.
Social Media account holders effectively have a free-for-all if they so desire.
So, if you are angry, frustrated and have it all underpinned by idealistic views and a sense of entitlement that the way social media account anonymity does nothing to counteract, you really can go to work on social media causing problems for others and saying whatever you want, pretty much without fear of consequence, unless you choose to use language that very few would see as a risk-free choice.
Whistle-blowers and Truth-tellers
Many of the comments ripping their way around the social media channels at the moment focus on a demand to legislate to end online anonymity. What they don’t do is address the argument that supports the need for anonymity for those with legitimate reasons, whilst excluding only those who have a malevolent purpose or simply get a kick out of being a troll.
With cancel culture and the explosion of woke or idealistic thinking based on lack of life experience and experience of others and a lack of tolerance for the views of others too, there exists a significant number of people who have knowledge and understanding that we all need to experience. These are people who can help everyone, but who are too afraid to speak out and put their name to what they say for fear of the consequences. Attacks and abuse that most people would agree are built upon nothing more than unreasoned and unacceptable hate.
The truth is only painful to those who need to hear it or wont accept it. And in an age like the one we are now in, we have never needed the truth to be shared about everything with everyone in the way that we do right now.
With the protectionist and self-serving cultures that exist across high-level business and the public sector, we also need to protect those who want to bring light to the realities that underpin all the ills that society currently faces, without fear of professional repercussion or unnecessary overt risk.
Beyond those with a legitimate need for the protection of online anonymity, there are those of us who have simply not yet found the confidence to put a name to their voice. And if these individuals want to speak and do so without any intent to cause others any kind or any level of harm, why should they be discouraged from doing so?
Afterall, the very step of removing that online anonymity may be the one factor that halts their journey from one kind of life to another. Just another barrier to social mobility where lack of consideration of others could easily take away yet another individuals choice.
Social Media Platforms as online policeman
In an ideal world, we should be able to expect the owners and operators of the social media channels to already be dealing with these problems by tackling them before they even begin.
But the social media platforms aren’t doing anywhere near enough to tackle the problems that exist within the social media sphere.
Controversy, bad news and negative information are the catnip for posts going viral and as such the source of massive revenue generating clicks, they have little incentive to deal with or implement an effective way to police this behaviour when their master is profit and commercialism, rather than the wellbeing of the public that they tell us they are there to serve.
Online Anonymity for those who need it and a paper trail for all
Online anonymity is a privilege. Not a right.
Simply ending online anonymity will be a massive attack on freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Yet there must be a system that removes the voice and influence of those who wish harm upon others, simply because they disagree with them or want to impose an alternative view or truth.
The social media platforms could create a forward process of verification that would amount to the same thing as an application to gain a username, which could allow users to post anonymously, simply because their verified details are stored and therefore known.
However, you can bet that if the media platforms thought that there was a profitable or beneficial reason for them doing so, they would have already implemented such a system voluntarily by choice.
Such a lack of attention to this need and the existence of verification systems like that on Twitter which are seen by users as a badge to impress followers with rather than one which should give confidence in the legitimacy of their voice, realistically mean that these commercially-driven enterprises cannot be relied upon to develop and administrate a system that basically puts the needs of the public good first.
It necessarily follows that the best way to administer such a system would be to place it within impartial, third-party hands, where personal data is reliability kept safe, but where the level of legitimacy exists that will give confidence to all the parties involved.
The way to do this would be to do something like expand the scope of the services provided by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO), and require all users of public online (social media) platforms to register with them for a small fee, where their details will be logged and in return they can be given a unique identification number that the user can then register with online platforms to gain (or renew) their username, with the platform then continuing to allow them to exercise anonymity if it is the users choice.
Being given what is in effect a license to participate in public forums where privacy or protection cannot be assured as there is an absence of other appropriate regulations or rules would mean that all users immediately have skin in the game, as this method of access is something that could itself be withdrawn.
Yes, the system would be reliant upon having a robust system of governance in place which meant that it could not itself be abused or used to restrict access for anyone just because of who they are.
But at a time when the social media platforms are themselves restricting the publication of political material and the content of posts from people they don’t approve of or like, the fact is that an impartial qualification for users of this kind, might well have hidden benefits that could bring balance back to a heavily skewed system and help us to get things right.