Margaret Hodge – 2021 Speech on Online Anonymity and Anonymous Abuse

The speech made by Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking, in the House of Commons on 24 March 2021.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on securing this debate.

Legislating on online harms gives us a vital opportunity to call a halt to the extremism, misinformation and avalanche of harmful abuse that has become commonplace on social media. Whether on big platforms such as Twitter or fringe platforms such as Telegram, harmful content is now all-pervasive. Recently, another tsunami of racist abuse was directed at the footballers Marcus Rashford, Lauren James and Anthony Martial. Sometimes, the perpetrators can be identified, but too often those responsible do not reveal who they are. In the past, we argued that online anonymity supported open democratic debate; I am now convinced that anonymity encourages online harm that is not just hateful in itself but is used to spread lies about individuals and aims to undermine their credibility and so shut down their voices. Far from nurturing democratic debate, anonymity undermines democracy.

My work challenging Jew-hate reached a climax last autumn, with the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism in the Labour party. Community Security Trust found that my public comments at that time led to 90,000 mentions on social media. The vast majority were abusive, racist and misogynistic.

Let me share just a few; some are very offensive.

“I hope she dies soon. Dumb bitch”;

“nothing but a couple of shit-stirring…cum buckets, bought and paid for by Israel.”

I was told I was a “Mossad agent”, a “Zionist stooge”, a wrinkly “pedo-lover”. “Traitor.” “Snake.” “Rat.” “Shill.” “Nazi”. This abuse is aggressive, harmful, yet sometimes I have no idea who said it.

Ending anonymity for those who promulgate hate or harm is key to effectively combating it. We must compel social media companies to be able to identify all users. We know that is easily done. Take the online payment company PayPal. Everyone using PayPal must provide their identity when setting up an account. Users’ identity is not public, but it can be traced if required. If social media companies acted similarly, those who use online anonymity for good, such as whistleblowers, or victims of child abuse or domestic abuse, could continue to do so, but those who use anonymity to spread harmful content would be identifiable, and could be dealt with by the appropriate authorities. Knowing that would, at a stroke—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)

I am sorry; we will have to leave it there. Time is up.