TOPIC GUIDE: Free speech on social Media

"There should be limits to free speech on social media"

PUBLISHED: 26 May 2016

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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Free speech, and the debate about the extent to which it should be moderated, if at all, is one which continues to polarise opinion. Online, the argument surrounding the limits of free speech focusses primarily on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, who are coming under increasing pressure from critics to prevent so called ‘trolls’ from having a platform to abuse and offend people on their sites [Ref: Guardian]. With recent controversies such as rapper Azealia Banks having her Twitter account suspended for racially offensive comments [Ref: Guardian], many now question whether the online world should be, “the flag bearer of free for all freedom of speech” [Ref: Forbes] any longer, or if online free speech has gone too far and needs to be reined in. Instead of the internet being a forum for open dialogue and discourse, opponents argue that too often free speech online actually takes the form of: “Threatening, homophobic, racist, sexist abuse (which) can actually stifle debate and lead to censorship – with some individuals not willing to say things that might provoke abuse.” [Ref: Guardian] However, others such as journalist Brendan O’Neill are concerned by these developments, and suggest that the debate about free speech online epitomises our times. He argues that we are now told that we need protecting from distasteful and challenging views, ideas and opinions, that we should all feel ‘safe’ online, and from this perspective, “the internet is depicted as a terrifying sphere, people are re-imagined as vulnerable, and a select group of the switched on fashion themselves as the moral cleansers of web life.” [Ref: spiked] In light of this, how should we view free speech online? Are critics right that freedom of expression online has become a smokescreen for hateful and abusive views, and should be curtailed for the good of all users? Or should people be allowed to express themselves in whatever way they see fit online, even if it is offensive and rude, without fear of censure? Should free speech be limited online?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Free speech and the internet
From its inception, the internet was envisaged as a domain that facilitated the free dissemination of ideas and information across borders – with the aim of giving everyone the opportunity to express themselves freely. Some fear that these principles are being lost in the current discussion about free speech online, especially when considering internet independence pioneer John Perry Barlow’s statement in 1996, that: “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” [Ref: Electronic Frontier Foundation] But is, and indeed should the internet, be a distinct sphere, free from the moral guidelines of acceptable speech in the outside world? Some argue that the anonymity of the web, allows people to disseminate offensive opinions to complete strangers, and that, “the freedom to invent a new identity is, like Plato’s ring of Gyges, taken as a freedom to slip free of all morality.” [Ref: Guardian] Similarly, in 2011, then President of France Nicholas Sarkozy declared that the internet needed to be civilised and brought into line because it, “is not a parallel universe which is free from the rules of law or ethics or any of the fundamental principles that must govern, and do govern the social lives of our democratic states” [Ref: Arstechnica]. And with incidents such as Gamergate [Ref: Time Magazine], and accusations of free speech allowing for the abuse and bullying of women and minorities in particular on social media platforms [Ref: Guardian], is it right in principle that we should look to moderate language and speech to combat this?

The right to troll?
Amid high profile cases of Twitter trolling [Ref: Daily Mirror] [Ref: Guardian], writer and journalist Laurie Penny is critical of the contemporary debate surrounding free speech on the internet. She questions the notion that: “People should be free to write and publish whatever they want online”, and instead argues that the discussion should focus on, “at what point one person’s freedom of expression impinges of the freedom of another” [Ref: Al Jazeera]. From this perspective, some would argue that free speech as an abstract concept is, “relatively noncontroversial” [Ref: Al Jazeera], but that when a commitment to free speech means that people are free to abuse, bully and offend others online, without consequence, we have to think very carefully about what that means practically. Journalist Suzanne Moore is sympathetic to this view, and she suggests that the online world is yet to catch up with the outside world on how to mediate between free speech and offence. She concedes that unfortunately: “Trolling seems to be viewed as an acceptable price to pay for having a voice, for the illusion of freedom.” [Ref: Guardian] Similarly, for those critical of the contemporary online discourse, the cost of allowing people to say whatever they want to whomever they want, anonymously, impacts on the nature of political debate more broadly. Addressing this point, columnist Owen Jones says that: “There’s scrutiny of ideas, and then there’s something else” [Ref: Guardian], going on to conclude that the effect of free speech online is to “coarsen, even poison, political debate” [Ref: Guardian]. Others though are not so sure about this assessment, with one commentator warning that: “Online abuse is a real problem; but so is the danger that it may become an excuse for silencing unpopular opinions and ‘offensive’ expression.” [Ref: Observer]

Free speech: no if’s, no but’s?
For supporters of free speech, the concept is inalienable, and should apply online and off. For instance, Willard Foxton argues that it is fine to judge certain things as being offensive, and uses the example of his disdain for racist posts on Facebook to highlight this – but notes that fundamentally, “we respect their right to protest, to freedom of thought and speech for good reasons in real life – I don’t see how we can remain true to those values if we start pushing racists off the internet, for the crime of having ‘bad’ views.” [Ref: Telegraph] This censorious climate, according to critics, has culminated in the banning of certain individuals from online platforms such as Twitter for being rude and abusive [Ref: Wall Street Journal], as well as accusations that social media companies censor controversial opinions [Ref: Telegraph] to avoid offending some of their users. For supporters of free speech online, these developments are deeply problematic, because once we start deciding that certain views are too offensive, and must be limited or moderated, free speech ceases to mean anything at all. However, in an opinion piece written in the Washington Post, a senior Twitter official acknowledged that some use the cloak of free speech to be hateful and offensive to others online, cautioning that: “Freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we continue to allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up.” [Ref: Washington Post] Others though dismiss these concerns completely, with one commentator stating that: “In their twisted world, free speech is censorship, and censorship is free speech”, declaring that: “The bottom line is this: too much liberty is always, but always better than too little.” [Ref: spiked] So should we embrace the messiness of free speech on social media, because: “If the biggest inconvenience of internet freedom is that losers tell you you’re stupid or ugly, and should be punched, then we should consider ourselves very lucky indeed” [Ref: spiked]? Or is it right and responsible that tech companies and government begin looking to moderate speech online to protect users from offence and bullying?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Why has the Guardian declared war on internet freedom?

Brendan O'Neill spiked 14 April 2016

Is the internet evolving away from freedom of speech?

Kalev Leetaru Forbes 15 January 2016


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

I don’t fear the trolls - I enjoy their absurdities

Lucy Worsley Telegraph 13 April 2016

What is the best way to stop internet trolls?

Chris Baraniuk BBC News 21 March 2016

Receiving online abuse has now become a badge of honour

Douglas Murray Spectator 2 March 2016

In the age of ISIS, will you lose freedoms of Arab Spring?

Rebecca MacKinnon CNN 25 January 2016

Twitter tackles the free speech conundrum

Emily Bell Guardian 10 January 2016

Why Facebook needs to do more to protect you from online abuse

Fiona R. Martin & Jonathon Hutchinson The Conversation 17 September 2015

Controversial cyberbullying law passes

Nicholas Jones New Zealand Herald 30 June 2015

What is #Gamergate and why are women being threatened about video games?

Eliana Dockterman Time Magazine 16 October 2014

Involving the police is not the way to teach trolls a lesson

Robert Sharp New Statesman 31 July 2012


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


The morality of the imagination

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 7 March 2015

The moral code of social media

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 17 November 2012

Morality on social networks

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 31 March 2012

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