Social media trolls should not be allowed to hide

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In the old days, people resorted to poisoned pen letters.

Vitriol effusions, usually mailed to someone you wanted it against, were almost always sent anonymously, so you didn’t know who was behind the venom. This made them even more disturbing.

Years ago I wrote a column criticizing aggressive cyclists. It wasn’t too overwhelming – I cycle myself and pointed out that I was referring to a minority – but a few days after it was posted I received some very vicious letters.

A few readers have shared their thoughts fairly and reasonably. These letters, along with the names and addresses of the senders, were published in the newspaper.

But others, sent without either, were extremely threatening. In one, the shipper claimed to know where I worked, where I parked my car, and added that there was a hole in the ground waiting for me and a bucket of concrete ready to seal it. It was horrible to read.

Since then, I have received many anonymous letters. One of them happened pouring unsavory thoughts on my appearance and describing what I had worn on a certain day and where I had been seen wearing it.

It’s not a good thing for people to criticize you, or worse, threaten you, anonymously. It would be bad enough if you knew who the person was. Not knowing is worse.

You end up becoming paranoid asking yourself, “How well does this person know me?” Could it be a friend of mine, a colleague or a neighbor? Anonymous letters are bad enough, but now on social media, hurling insults at people on the condition of anonymity is a full-time job for many. By writing under silly pseudonyms, people can be as hostile and hateful as they want.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in the public eye, to be relentlessly trolled day and night, all year round.

My colleague tasted it last year after receiving a wave of hateful comments on Twitter after a column she wrote about wearing masks during the pandemic. The torrent of abuse was overwhelming for her.

For MPs and celebrities this must be very difficult to manage.

Following the gruesome murder of MP Sir David Amess, Home Secretary Priti Patel has said she could remove the right to anonymity on social media. She said she and many other MPs had suffered “appalling” online attacks and warned: “We cannot continue like this.

The government is developing plans to increase the accountability of tech giants following a report by the Public Life Standards Committee calling on social media companies to take immediate action against online abuse.

I don’t know how to fix it, but whatever action you take will be long overdue. Newspapers need a name and an address to publish letters from readers. Under special circumstances, their contact details may be hidden, but they are always known to the publisher. Yet online, you don’t have to reveal yourself. That does not make sense.

Sir David Amess had received a “shattering threat” in the days leading up to his death. Whether it was on social media, or if it was related to his death, I don’t know, but it was bad enough that he reported it to the police.

Anonymous attackers are cowards.

If they were to stand up and reveal their true identities to the world, would they always do so, would they still threaten people? Some might, but I don’t think many would.


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