LONDON — Social media companies need to know users’ real identity so that police can track down people who incite racial hatred and threaten violence, a British MP who’s suffered virulent online trolling told POLITICO.
Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, was the target of 45 percent of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the six weeks before the June 2017 U.K. general election, according to research by Amnesty International.
In her view, the problem with trolling is not defining what qualifies as abuse, but tracking down the people who threaten violence and rape or incite racial hatred.
An effective way to fight back would be to force social media companies to collect people’s “real identities” while continuing to allow anonymous profiles on Twitter, Facebook and “below the line” on media comment sections.
People “might think twice about what they tweet and say,” she said, adding that the proposal was her personal idea and not party policy.
Currently Facebook asks users to agree to use their authentic name and identity when they join. Twitter does not require users to post under a real name, verify their email address or authenticate their identity.
“Sadly I don’t go on Twitter as much as I used to because of the level of abuse” — Diane Abbott
Police do take action over illegal Twitter posts, such as in 2014 when two people were jailed for subjecting feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez to abuse.
Law enforcement authorities can request a warrant if they suspect illegal activity has taken place from a particular IP address.
But Abbott said that when she complained about grossly abusive posts, she was told: “‘We can’t trace the people, we can’t find them.'”
She also urged companies to take down illegal tweets much more quickly, but said there was a reluctance within the U.S.-owned social media companies to move because of the culture of the First Amendment in the U.S. constitution, which guarantees free speech.
“We have to say that we have a culture in this country which is about abiding by the law and the law in this country is very clear about incitement to racial hatred and threats of violence and rape,” she added.
Abbott, whose shadow home secretary brief also includes counterterrorism, said Labour was also looking at the issue of encryption.
U.K. Home Secretary Amber Rudd has previously questioned the use of end-to-end encryption on messaging apps like WhatsApp, arguing that it aids terrorists. The U.K. government however has not yet taken any legislative action.
Abbott warned that if there were backdoors for the “good guys,” it could provide backdoors for the ‘bad guys.”
She said the U.K. government needed to engage with how terrorists were slipping through the net, claiming perpetrators of U.K. terror incidents last year had been drawn to the attention of the authorities.
“Clearly technology has made counterterrorism and communication between terrorists a more complex issue, but it doesn’t take away from the importance of the government ensuring that if people are drawn to the attention of the authorities these things are followed up,” Abbott added.
“Sadly I don’t go on Twitter as much as I used to because of the level of abuse,” she said.