Banning anonymous social media accounts should be looked at, says deputy PM

·7-min read

Watch: Deputy PM says 'vile' online abuse directed at MPs has got to stop

Dominic Raab has backed calls for a ban on social media anonymity in the wake of the death of Conservative MP Sir David Amess.

The justice secretary and deputy prime minister said on Monday the possibility of closing anonymous social media accounts should be examined in an effort to tackle online hatred.

Sir David, the MP for Southend West, was stabbed to death on Friday during a meeting in a church with constituents in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.

Read more: The ‘dedicated’ Tory MP stabbed to death while meeting constituents

His death was condemned by numerous MPs, many of whom have suffered anonymous abuse online.

Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Picture date: Tuesday October 5, 2021. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/Empics
Justice secretary and deputy prime minister Dominic Raab says a ban on anonymity on social media should be considered following the death of Conservative Party MP Sir David Amess. (PA)

On Sunday, home secretary Priti Patel did not rule out banning anonymity on social media.

She was backed by Raab, who told Sky News on Monday morning: “I don’t see why people should be able to abuse a position on social media from a veil of anonymity.

“On balance, I think there is a case for really looking very carefully at this.”

However, Raab said he did not want to “send a message to tyrants all over the world that they can expose” campaigners who need anonymity.

Later on Monday, Raab told BBC Breakfast he has had three “threats to life and limb” in the past two years.

“There will be people who have worse abuse than me, and I particularly feel for the female MPs, and I know colleagues of mine who have come off, for example, Twitter because it’s just so vile,” he said.

“I have had three threats to life and limb over the last two years.”

He said those incidents “all resulted in an intervention”, but did not give further details.

Read more: Sir David Amess pleaded with PM to tackle knife murders 7 months ago

On Sunday, Patel was asked on Sky News if she would consider legislation to remove the right to anonymity on social media.

“I want us to look at everything,” she replied.

A candle and a photo at a vigil at St Michael & All Angels church in Leigh-on-Sea Essex for Conservative MP Sir David Amess who died after he was stabbed several times at a constituency surgery on Friday. Picture date: Sunday October 17, 2021.
A candle and a photo at a vigil at St Michael & All Angels church in Leigh-on-Sea Essex for Conservative MP Sir David Amess. (PA)

“There is work taking place already. We have an Online Harms Bill that will come to Parliament, there is working taking place on it right now.

“I’ve done a lot of work on social media platforms, mainly around encryption and areas of that nature.

“But we can’t carry on like this. I spend too much time with communities who have been under attack, basically who have had all sorts of postings online and it is a struggle to get those posts taken down.

“We want to make some big changes on that.”

Watch: Priti Patel considering ban on social media anonymity after MP's death

In a separate interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Patel said: “There is this whole issue about anonymity but it has to be proportionate and it has to be balanced.

“People also use social media through anonymity for a range of pro-democracy movements for example, and for raising a range of other cases.

“We can’t just apply a binary approach but there is something very corrosive – I will put forward my personal views right now – what we see on social media, much of it, and this isn’t just about MPs – I’ve seen children subject to the most appalling hate and abuse online.

“If nothing else, this is one area where all politicians can come together to really close that corrosive space where we see just dreadful behaviour, hate, we see suicide websites, all sorts of corrosive things online.

“This is what we really want to close down.”

LONDON,UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 16: David Amess MP in the Prime Ministers Office at the House of Commons on October 16,2016 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Zoe Norfolk/Getty Images)
Sir David Amess was stabbed to death on Friday at a constituency surgery in Essex. (Getty Images)

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy warned that a blanket ban on anonymity could endanger whistleblowers and campaigners.

She told The Independent: “We’ve got to get the balance right, because social media can be an enormous force.

“You’ve got some incredible campaigners – the women of Belarus, the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the young people of Afghanistan – they’ve managed to use social media in order to make themselves heard.

“And if you speak to Childline they’ll say that social media has been a major problem for a lot of young people, but it’s also been a way in which young people can now reach out and get help in a way that they couldn’t when I was a child.”

However, the Labour MP said there should be “limits” on the use of anonymous accounts.

In a poll of more than 3,400 people conducted in July by YouGov, only 11% said everyone should be able to use social media without having to display their real identity.

Almost eight out of 10 people (78%) said users should either display their real name on their profile or disclose their identity to the social network when signing up.

People light candles during a vigil at St Michael & All Angels church in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex for Conservative MP Sir David Amess who died after he was stabbed several times at a constituency surgery on Friday. Picture date: Sunday October 17, 2021.
People light candles during a vigil at St Michael & All Angels church in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex for Conservative MP Sir David Amess, who was stabbed to death at a constituency surgery on Friday. (PA)

Amid security concerns in the wake of Sir David’s death, Raab said he would not stand in the way of MPs who chose to have plainclothes police officers at their constituency surgeries.

But he told Sky News: “I probably wouldn’t choose to have them outside a surgery that I had. I would worry about the chilling effect, I’m not sure it’s necessary to have that.

“We don’t let the terrorists win by creating wedges or walls between us and those who vote us in.”

Sir David’s family left floral tributes outside the church where he was stabbed to death.

His widow, Julia, wiped tears from her eyes on the visit to Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea on Monday morning.

The family spent more than 15 minutes looking through the messages that people had written.

A spokesman for the prime minister said Boris Johnson believes Sir David’s death “cannot get in the way of democracy”.

Read more: Boris Johnson pays tribute to ‘kind and gentle’ Tory MP

The spokesman said: “While individual arrangements should rightly remain a matter for individual MPs and police, the prime minister shares the concerns with a number of MPs and ministers that this attack cannot get in the way of democracy.

“We will not be cowed by those who seek to divide us and spread hate and the PM has been struck by the bravery and commitment to serving constituents expressed by many MPs following Sir David’s death.”

The House of Commons observed a minute’s silence in memory of Sir David at 2.30pm on Monday.

Speaking in the Commons, Patel said: “His killing is a terrible and sad moment in our history, an attack on our democracy and an appalling tragedy."

In a statement on Sunday, his wife, four daughters and son said: “Strong and courageous is an appropriate way to describe David. He was a patriot and a man of peace.

“So, we ask people to set aside their differences and show kindness and love to all. This is the only way forward. Set aside hatred and work towards togetherness.

“Whatever one’s race, religious or political beliefs, be tolerant and try to understand.”

A 25-year-old man was arrested at the scene on suspicion of Sir David’s murder and remains in police custody.

He has been detained under section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and detectives are expected to continue to question him until Friday after a warrant of further detention was granted.

Watch: Candlelit vigil held in honour of MP Sir David Amess

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