MP gets 600 rape threats in a night, wants an end to online anonymity

Two years ago, Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, joined others to launch #Recl@im the Internet: a campaign based on the Reclaim the Night effort to enable women to walk freely at night without the fear of being attacked.

After Phillips launched the campaign, she spent a bank holiday playing in the garden with her kids. But while she was enjoying her holiday, Twitter’s bilge pumps went into turbo-drive, resulting in some 5,000 abusive tweets.

There were the initial poison arrows from the troll ringleaders, followed by the troll-lettes that dogpiled on. As she told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire at the time, many of the messages threatened rape. Many others said that Phillips wasn’t worthy of being raped, as if rape was something attackers would only do to someone they liked.

The rate of sewage flow was quite high. Fast-forward to the 2018 Cheltenham Science Festival this past weekend, where Phillips said that she received 600 rape threats in one night and was threatened with violence and aggression every day.

Two years ago, Phillips said that she intended to contact Twitter about the ringleaders of the dogpile. More recently, she has stressed that legal action, be it civil or criminal, is the best way to attack the abusers. Phillips told The Metro that she contacted the police, who’ve issued harassment orders against two individuals for “constantly emailing me with bile and abuse.”

That’s not enough, however. The MP wants the social platforms to join the fight: she said at the weekend conference that she wants trolls to more or less be stripped of their anonymity online. At least, they’d have to disclose their identities to companies such as Facebook and Twitter, but they could still post messages anonymously.

The Metro reports that over the weekend, Security Minister Ben Wallace said that digital IDs could be used to end the online anonymity that enables online bullying and paedophiles’ grooming of kids.

Before that, on Friday, Prime Minister Theresa May used the G7 Summit to call on the tech giants to offer better protection for women and girls on the internet. May called on the platforms to extend their work with the algorithms and protocols used in battling online terrorist propaganda, to bring those tools to the task of ending online abuse targeted specifically at women and girls: the “online rape threats, harassment, cyberstalking, blackmail, and vile comments.”

May encouraged companies to take down online content promoting or depicting violence against women and girls, including illegal violent pornography and rape threats on social media platforms.

The UK government cited recent research from Amnesty International UK that found that:

  • One in five women in the UK have suffered online abuse or harassment.
  • Almost half of women said the abuse or harassment they received was sexist or misogynistic, with 27% saying it threatened sexual or physical assault.
  • 55% said that they experienced anxiety, stress or panic attacks as a result.
  • Only 23% of Facebook and 19% of Twitter users rated the platforms’ response in addressing online abuse or harassment as adequate, versus 41% and 43% who considered it inadequate.

It’s all in a day’s work for an MP, Phillips said – she just lets the spittle from the idiots roll right off. Neither is she afraid for her own safety, or for that of her family.

What she is afraid of is harm to democracy, and she’s now of the opinion that the trolls shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind invisibility cloaks.

I personally have come to the viewpoint that I don’t think people should be allowed to be completely anonymous online anymore. I don’t mind if people appear anonymous online for all sorts of really reasonable reasons.

Phillips cited one example: one of her constituents, a teacher, wanted to speak out against government cuts to schools. The teacher wouldn’t mind Facebook or Twitter knowing their identity, but they’d prefer to appear anonymous to the public. Phillips:

Anyone who wishes to damage our democracy can just write all that stuff. I think we have got to try and do something about this and I think the anonymity debate is probably where Parliament will lead.

It’s worth noting that Jess Phillips’ case isn’t particularly noteworthy. There are 650 UK MPs, of whom 208 are women, and she’s one of many who regularly receive online abuse.

She thinks the answer is an end to anonymity. Given what she’s been through, it’s easy to see why she’d say that.

But whether you agree or disagree with her suggestion, it’s likely just another politician’s pipedream, similar to encryption that only the good guys can break.

On the flip side, achieving true anonymity online is actually very hard, as recounted in the ongoing reel of stories about whatever crook of the day law enforcement has tracked down.

There is no place for rape threats in civil discourse. Let’s hope that Phillips, and all the other targets of troll abuse, get the satisfaction of seeing the most egregious jerks arrested and brought to trial.

Image courtesy of Jess Phillips/Facebook.