On Tuesday, I wrote a short blog about Sadiq Khan’s threats to crack down on Uber. For the rest of the day, my Twitter timeline was filled by obloquy from made-up accounts from black cab drivers. No more than a dozen of them, but using similar themes: showing pictures of immigrant Uber drivers, claiming that they went on bizarre routes to rip off passengers, or that they rape their passengers. I have no doubt that most of their graphics were fake (like the ones showing an Uber surge 33 times basic fare) but it was a glimpse into how the internet can be used by people hiding behind made-up names to slur. In this case: a company. In other cases: real people.
The Crown Prosecution Service today asks: should this sort of thing be illegal? Should adults be charged with a criminal offence if they use fake Twitter or social media IDs to harass others? The CPS thinks so, and has today said it is amending its guidelines accordingly.
To me, this is a bit worrying: the digital era should not be used an excuse to erode free speech protection – the right to insult and be vulgar has always been protected in Britain. Also, the problem of trolls is felt most acutely by journalists and people in the public eye who are the target of their attacks: should the law be changed to thwart this? People who once howled into the wind (or in Speakers Corner) can now have their witterings published on cyberspace and even directed at their targets via Twitter. To me, the remedy for this kind of thing is simple: switch it off. But the police, instead, will go prosecute – for example – an imbecile who posted a Facebook picture of burning poppies on Armistice day.
But I’d like to ask Coffee Housers a slightly different question: does the ability to make comments under an assumed name make people more likely to be abusive? If we asked our commentators to use real names, so their comments could be seen by their family and workmates, might this improve the quality of the debate? We’re wondering what to do about our own trolls, and the more imbecilic comments below the line. So any thoughts would be welcome.