Is freedom of speech under threat?
Everyone on social media has something to say and wants to be heard. Figures last year revealed that more than 3.8 billion people were active on social media and that figure has by now probably passed four billion. As individuals, we may want to speak out on a personal problem or concern or comment on a global issue affecting the entire planet. And why shouldn’t we? In the free world, at least, freedom of speech is a fundamental right supported by all. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” was the stirring quotation frequently attributed to Voltaire but actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Wright, who penned the words as an unforgettable illustration of the great libertarian’s beliefs.
The former US President, Donald Trump, was famously banned from both Facebook and Twitter last month for inciting the violence in Washington. But the right to say what we want has come under challenge more broadly, not by the platforms themselves, but by their users. A number of actors, writers and others in the showbiz worlds, some fairly famous and even a few very famous, have spoken out on matters on which many consider they have no right to voice an opinion and as a result have received a public battering online. Laurence Fox, known for his role in the TV series Lewis, sparked both press and social media outrage after his Question Time television appearance in which he instructed a BAME person on matters of racism. Fox has what is known as “previous’’ in regard to his comments on woke culture, and has been accused alongside a number of less famous showbiz folk of actively courting controversy.
The much more famous JK Rowling received what she called “toxic” social media abuse after straying, via Twitter, into a transgender controversy, subsequently finding herself labelled as “transphobic.” Guardian journalist, Suzanne Moore, also received online abuse, death threats and even a newsroom revolt after she wrote of concerns about the transgender movement.
Increasingly, many “celebrities” are falling victim to such “cancel culture”, meaning they are ostracised both online and in the real world – in other words, that they are ‘cancelled.’ Whatever happened to, “I disapprove of what you say, but…?”
What our surveys show
Strange as it may seem, “Mind what you say,” appears to be a safer and more appropriate maxim in modern times than, “Say what’s on your mind,” especially if you’re a celebrity or in the public eye. In our survey a large majority, 64%, agreed that freedom of speech is under “woke culture” threat in the UK, with many afraid to say what they think for fear of being called-out online or even “cancelled”. Just 20% disagreed and 16% said they didn’t know.
The picture is less clear-cut when it comes to issues such as “transphobia” and whether public figures such as JK Rowling should be ostracised online for expressing opinions many find offensive. Overall the “Ayes” just about had it, with 38% answering “Yes” and 36% “No”. A significant 19% said it “depends on the circumstances” and, unsurprisingly, there were large generational differences of opinion. A huge majority, 63%, believe the most important aspect of using social media platforms is for users to feel safe and free from threat, compared to just 22% who believe that the right to express our views, whatever they are, is even more important.