Why you should never be afraid of speaking your mind online

Fear of online attack is stifling freedom of speech, says Radio 5 Live presenter Emma Barnett

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I have no opinions. Well, not officially, that is. Or ones that could threaten my impartiality. After nearly ten years of being paid expressly to have views in the world of newspapers and commercial talk radio, I am now actively involved in the odd art of self-censorship.

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But I mustn’t grumble. I’m paid by the BBC to host opinions, not hold them myself. And yet self-censorship is catching on, in a way that troubles more than it pleases. Of course, you can argue that social media platforms have led to people oversharing in ways we couldn’t have imagined. But by and large they are trite insights; the greenness of their breakfast avocado, or their cute offspring doing something cute.

But strongly held opinions about the important matters of the day? These can seem in shorter supply, as individuals fear being viciously trolled for daring to share a view that may fly in the face of the digital herd.

And what I fear the most, women, especially, being brutally attacked online. Folk hesitate before sharing a serious opinion to ask themselves: what’s the point of putting my head above the parapet? And quietly delete their words.

Statistics show that fewer and fewer voices are dominating the fray. And even then, professional provocateurs – like Katie Hopkins – rule the roost, knowing exactly how to extract the most reaction for gain and direct all opinion oxygen in their direction.

James Harding, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, speaking at the Editorial Intelligence Comment conference recently, posited that against the backdrop of a wild, wild web where the boundaries of free speech are being strenuously tested, people are more careful about what they say than they were five years ago. This is all while Facebook, Twitter and Instagram play catch-up in terms of monitoring and curbing the online abuse that threatens their platforms as free and creative spaces.

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Censorship has been at the front of my mind recently, having just returned from an eye-opening and hugely enjoyable trip to China. I virtually tip-toed around an eerie Tiananmen Square in Beijing, cautiously taking photographs of ornate street lights weighed down with CCTV cameras – while dodging the mini armies of ever-vigilant police.

When my phone wasn’t randomly switching itself off, I used the special VPN app I had downloaded in advance to avoid the country’s great firewall, to access global news and my email. I observed that China’s tech-savvy youth are finding their own ways around censorship, but I was still left wondering what it must be like to grow up in a country where there’s a “state view” of news, history and politics.

Do you just learn to keep your views to yourself? Or after the huge interfamily betrayals that went on under Mao, do you just stop thinking at all? Simply because it’s safer? It’s a sobering and terrifying thought.

So it was with a wry smile and whole heap of gratitude that I returned to the UK as the snap general election was announced. Election and voter fatigue may be understandable given the recent political bumps in the road and the relentlessness of 24/7 news, but I fear a larger reticence is taking hold, which is quietly silencing people without them necessarily realising it.

And don’t get me started on the filter bubble, where people only see news that reinforces their own world view, rather than challenging them in any way. That’s a whole other article. My job as a journalist and broadcaster is to find different ways to help people to open up and speak freely on air and on the page.

But it is somewhat ironic that this role may have become harder in a day and age where anyone and everyone can take a pop at you, because of the liberating internet. Of course people paid to have opinions will always deliver – but what about those who aren’t? We need to hear from them, too – even if they fear an online backlash, or worse, have stopped thinking that their views on the serious stuff matter.

As a BBC employee, I may be learning to perfect the art of self-censorship – but it’s certainly not a skill I wish to spread.

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Emma Barnett presents 5 Live Daily 10am on Radio 5 Live