UK Labour’s Angela Rayner wants to end online abuse, but she fails to understand the lives of those outside the political and media bubbles.
Angela Rayner became the latest in a long line of politicians to suggest that anonymous social media accounts should be banned in an attempt on Sunday to crack down on abusive and threatening behavior online.
There is no doubt Rayner is sincere, and that the problem she refers to is a serious one, of which she and her colleagues have the first-hand experience. The reality for many MPs and public figures is that social media is a constant barrage of abuse and threats that are far worse for women, and especially for women of color or trans women.
Given that extensive experience of the harm caused by these accounts, it’s easy to see why calling for a ban seems a reasonable thing to do. However, in reality, it would do harm to a greater number of people than it would help.
Most people’s social media experience is nothing like that of those in the public eye, who will generally have tens if not hundreds of thousands of followers. The typical user has fewer than 500. Where public figures will have hundreds or thousands of replies a day, many users will have one or two, largely from people they know.
The kind of sustained abuse experienced by MPs and others is much rarer in wider society – and while this does not excuse it, or mean that it should not be addressed, it can distort the way politicians discuss anonymity and social media.
In practice, most people in the UK are far less free to express themselves – online or offline – than MPs, activists and journalists, often because of restrictions from their employers. For millions of public sector workers, including those in the police and NHS, there are rules against expressing political views, so that if someone wants to discuss politics online – which seems reasonable – they would need to use an anonymous account.
The same fears apply more widely to those in the private sector: we have heard enough tales of people losing their job for running their mouth off about their employer or posting pictures of a raucous night out, to dismiss this risk as hypothetical: people are right to be worried about posting under their own name.
Even those able to post under their own name often create anonymous or protected “alt” accounts to post about their family life, mental health, sex life or to bitch about others – and while we might frown on the latter, it’s hardly criminal or bannable behavior.
But where the UK leads, dictators can follow: the suggestion from Rayner and others that anonymous accounts are illegitimate allows authoritarian leaders to say the same, suppressing a channel for opposition speech.
Banning anonymous accounts is not just illiberal, it is also a failure in solidarity, and a failure to understand the real lives of those outside the political and media bubbles.
Rayner is rightly regarded as one of the MPs most closely in touch with the world outside that bubble, but her suggestion for social media is symptomatic of a politics that too often fails to recognize the needs of those people.
In the offline world, that was typified by a 2017 Labour manifesto that made huge offers on trains and student loans but offered almost nothing on buses – which are used far more frequently by those on low and middle incomes, especially outside the south-east.
The lives of people in politics and the media are very different from those of the people they represent or the audiences they write for – and what needs tackling and in what ways will be different for both groups.
Rayner’s proposal on online anonymity is perhaps the most obvious example of where those interests can differ – but it is far from the only one.