The aftermath of the horrific killing of Conservative MP David Amess should have been a moment for politicians and the public to unite in an effort to protect democracy. Instead, the discussion has been derailed by a push to ban anonymous social media accounts, which would stifle free speech and democratic rights.
Threatening online messages to politicians and other public figures should be taken seriously. As someone who has experienced online abuse, and a physical attack at the hands of the far right, I know all too well the danger. But, in this tragic event, there seems to be no known connection between the death of Amess and anonymous online posting.
While MPs are grieving, and understandably feel vulnerable, we must ask whether strengthening the online safety bill is the right approach. By shifting attention away from extremism toward online anonymity, do we hinder our democracy? There are many legitimate reasons why a citizen may not feel comfortable posting their opinion or sharing information under their own identity. Given the number of politicians who offer off-the-record quotes to journalists on a daily basis, generally for fear of their jobs or other harmful consequences, MPs will be able to empathise with this.
The bill would allow Ofcom to punish social networks that fail to remove “lawful but harmful” content. Defining abuse is politically subjective – what is seen as accountability by some could be seen as abuse by others. Mark Francois, who is campaigning for the changes, said “while people in public life must remain open to legitimate criticism, they can no longer be vilified or their families subject to the most horrendous abuse”. While there is no place for verbally violent, threatening or disturbing language, what can be defined as vilification versus illegitimate criticism is harder to judge.
Under such rules it is now possible to see, for example, how denouncing tens of thousands of avoidable deaths in the pandemic because of Tory policy could be construed as ramping up potentially dangerous rhetoric. If someone has lost a loved one to government policy, are we now to tell them that their hurt and anger have no place in public discourse? Neutral civility is the preserve of those for whom politics is only ever a game, a career, not the force that shapes their life – sometimes for the worse.
Indeed, this discussion has shifted away from protecting MPs against violence, and towards the question of what is an appropriate way for the public to interact with elected politicians. There can be no doubt that we need more compassion and kindness in political life, but we also have to recognise that one side of this debate has more power than the other. If we are not careful we legislate the policing of the language of the powerless by those in power.
We must also acknowledge that words do not carry equal weight. When a politician denounces largely vulnerable and voiceless minorities the potential impact is vast. According to the UN, British politicians’ “divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric” during the EU referendum led to a surge in hate crimes after the vote. When politicians called those receiving social security skivers, their words were not only offensive to those unable to work due to disabilities, or already in working poverty. They actively translated into a government agenda of austerity that led to 50,000 extra deaths in England alone. The anonymous Twitter account of a citizen holed below the poverty line, furiously raging to their 85 followers about their MP slashing their benefits, is rather different in nature and scale.
Yet responding to a despicable attack by hampering scrutiny of politicians undermines our democracy. A clear demarcation is required between impassioned critique and extremist incitement if we’re to better protect our politicians and public.