You may be surprised to learn that ‘Mystery Man’ is not in fact my real name but simply a name I use when I produce online content such as this. With that shocking revelation out of the way, you might wonder why I have bought this up and why I choose not to use my real name.
Recently, a Conservative Member of Parliament named David Amess was tragically murdered in his constituency by, it seems, a British-born Somali called Ali Harbi Ali. This was the second serving MP to be killed in the last 5 years following from the murder of Jo Cox in 2016. While a politician being killed isn’t an unprecedented event, the fact there had been two MPs killed in a short space of time has led to discussion over the volatile atmosphere that has surrounded politics in recent years. Although the divisions in the UK are not as stark as they are in the US, there is a still a growing divide over many social and cultural issues or a ‘cultural war’ which inevitably creates tension and conflict. The suspect being from an immigrant family is alone a point of contention as it raises questions over how much control countries should have over immigration.
How much these tensions contributed to Ali’s motivations for killing David Amess is debatable, but the reaction from the media and MPs has been to focus attention on abuse MPs receive on sites like Twitter and online abuse in general. One MP, the shy, retiring and in no way attention-seeking Jess Phillips (watch this for more context) wrote an article for The Independent where she described how she felt about the killing and how she gets attacked online for some of her views, just about remembering to mention David Amess at the beginning and end of it. Like I wrote in my previous post about Sarah Everard’s death, unfortunate incidents like this are often used to pursue a political agenda.
There have been attempts to apply further controls over online content to crack down on trolling and unpleasant comments targeted at people known to the general public such as politicians, broadcasters, footballers, etc. This includes introducing rules like banning anonymous users (like myself) from social media websites. This is similar to the desire some people have for ‘safe spaces’ where they will be protected from comments they dislike. The show South Park, in its typical satirical way, did a good job of parodying safe spaces in this song a few years ago.
That being said, it is true that people who hide behind a name and image and then proceed to troll and bully other people are in some ways being cowardly, especially if the person who is the target of their trolling uses their real name and presents a photo of themselves.
The internet is an interesting medium as it crosses the line between public and private spaces. We often use it in the comfort of our homes, but can engage with people thousands of miles away with a few keyboard taps and clicks of buttons. This means that how we present ourselves on it and interact with other people can vary widely. The different ways people use the internet include:
- People who show their face and real name
- People who show their face but don’t give out their name
- People who give out their real name but don’t show their face
- People who don’t show their face or real name
Obviously, I belong in the last category – I’m naturally a cautious and cagey person so I feel more comfortable using another name and some of the content I am interested in and want to create myself could get me in trouble; anything that attacks the status quo of politics is considered ‘problematic’ even though I have no position of influence or power and I’ve no skeletons in the closet.
Because I choose not to show myself or use my real name, I think the name and image I use online is a kind of ‘glass house’ in that it gives me protection but I can still be accused of hiding behind it if I was to attack somebody else over the internet. At some point in the future, I’m planning on making some more videos on YouTube (for more information see here) and I’m wary of attacking other users on the platform for the reasons I’ve described. Celebrities and famous people are an exception to this, in my opinion, and we should be free to criticise them as they are already judged by the public, anonymous or otherwise.
In terms of banning anonymous users, others have said that doing this wouldn’t stop the prevalence of online abuse anyway and certain vulnerable people, such as whistleblowers and people residing in oppressive countries, would not be able to express their views if they were not anonymous.
One possible way to deal with online abuse from trolls using anonymous accounts is to develop an online culture that favours people who are willing to show their faces and use their real names on websites. You could even offer ‘perks’ of some kind to those who appear as themselves online. This could be just having free rein to say whatever you want. While I’m not in favour of banning or blocking anybody for what they express on the internet, people who don’t use their names should expect to be called out for it if they want to attack others. Conversely, trolls can either be shunned, ridiculed or just not ‘fed’. None of these suggestions requires any new laws being introduced to try to deal with this problem, it only needs websites and individuals to find solutions for themselves.
I’ll continue to remain anonymous – if I didn’t it would take a lot of the ‘mystery’ out of Mystery Man! – but I’m aware that I have to think more carefully what I might say to other people because of this.