March 2021 Newsletter

Christian Wolmar’s March newsletter: Anonymity is killing fair debate 
Dear subscriber,

The ferocity of the arguments over low traffic neighbourhoods still never ceases to amaze me. I wrote, in a piece for LabourList, only half-jokingly that they had become the most controversial transport issue of the day, greater even than HS2 or the £27bn roads programme. The rows have continued and several LTNs have been removed by councils after strong opposition campaigns.
But how real are these campaigns? And what is motivating the people behind them? There is considerable evidence that a small number of fake accounts are skewing the debate.
Whenever I have tweeted items or links supportive of low traffic neighbourhoods, I have been inundated with hostile responses, which immediately heighten tension in the debate and which seem out of kilter with the measures being proposed. While I can understand that there may well be opposition to these schemes, the level of anger that has been engendered by the installation of a few bollards and planters seems out of proportion to the measures that are being introduced. And virtually all the more unpleasant tweets come from accounts where the identity of the poster is hidden.
And they may well be the work of a very small number of people. I have been alerted to the fact that a series of accounts from which posts hostile to LTNs were in fact linked and created by one person, oddly enough based in Birmingham, even though he spends a lot of time attacking London LTNs. The ones that have been identified are: @kingsheathltn
@khdivided; @LozellsLTN; @rmrstoo; @ioisours; @XLTN12; @muttley15776316; @baldkaz; @brixton_l; @ratrunner2; @shimanosteve; @ratrun10; and @onelambeth_just. However, there are many, probably dozens, more.
I understand that this same person has managed to contribute up to 50 responses to a particular consultation process. I will not reveal how I know this, but I have incontrovertible proof and I have now blocked these and several other similar accounts which follow the same pattern. They are all recent creations, have a handful of followers, who are often the same people, and the tone of the posts is consistently angry and unpleasant and brooks no argument. They are, in short, plain nasty, with no suggestion of or room for debate.
There is a consistent pattern, too, in the arguments that are used in the posts: LTNs are a form of gentrification; they disproportionately affect poorer people because they push traffic onto main roads where these poorer people live; they make it more difficult for people with disabilities to get around; and they slow down emergency vehicles. They take an us-against-them position and see the introduction of LTNs as part of a culture war, as was argued in this article on my site.
All these arguments are refutable on the basis of academic research and council surveys. Of course there are instances where schemes that subsequently need modification have been introduced but by and large LTNs have been a success in every respect — reducing traffic, making the air cleaner, creating more liveable streets, allowing children to cycle and walk and play outside more, and so on.
Responders to consultations often use a whole series of sock puppet accounts and many councils are not savvy enough to bin them. Redbridge, for instance, merely counts the number of responses in favour or against a proposal, without any attempt to assess their origin.
Of course it is not only in relation to low traffic neighbourhood schemes that this is happening. For instance, the spread of anti-vax disinformation has been facilitated by a flood of anonymous postings. Similarly, the terrible attacks on black footballers and politicians are nearly always from anonymous accounts and the social media companies.
The sad truth is that people with a twisted agenda tend to have both the time and the energy to spread their message. The eccentrics of Speaker’s Corner and the green ink letter writers now have easy access to a far more efficient medium than the loudspeaker or the letter.
As a result, I have now joined a campaign, https://www.cleanuptheinternet.org.uk/,which is seeking to bring some order to the unregulated bandit country of social media. The main idea is to give every social media user the option to verify the identity of posters. If people are unhappy about interacting with unverified users, they could block all of them with one click.
The social media companies will object, claiming it is a restriction on freedom of speech, but actually their real concern is that it would reduce the number of posts and therefore their earnings. I think it is a great idea and possibly only a start. I think there are actually very few people with a legitimate reason to hide their online identity. The truth is that people use anonymity to express views they would not dare to put their name to. Newspapers have long got round this problem on their letters pages by stating ‘name and address supplied’ if anonymity is required.
There is no doubt that social media companies will eventually face more regulation, and that the current period will in future be likened to the Wild West. But given the way that public discourse and indeed decision making is being distorted by anonymity, the need for change is urgent.
There’s not much new on my site this month, the usual couple of Rail columns, here and here and a letter I wrote to The Guardian.

Best wishes in these tough times.

Christian