Society and Culture

The ‘tyranny of the majority’ has given way to the tyranny of the hyperactive minority

The 21st century offers people more opportunities than ever before to communicate ideas and opinions. Technology enables us all to make our views known via social media, online comments pages, blogs and YouTube. Individuals can research issues online in greater depth and with less effort than previous generations could ever have dreamt of. And we can take part in real-time discussions about these issues with people anywhere in the world via apps such as Zoom. This ought to be a Golden Age for free speech, a technological triumph for participatory democracy.

Yet this does not seem to be the case. Liberating new technologies and associated freedoms have provoked a reaction leading to growing speech restrictions. Much of this, comes from the state. For example the concept of ‘hate crime’ – unknown in UK law until 1998 – has expanded from its origin as an aggravating factor in mainly violent crime to a catch-all category where the potential for causing harm or offence, in real life or online, is now causing over well 100,000 hate crimes (plus the even broader category of hate ‘incidents’) to be reported each year.

Government restrictions on speech cover many other areas, with varying degrees of justification, from terrorism-related material to child pornography to adverts for junk food. Whatever the objections of libertarians, at least such legal restrictions go through a process of parliamentary debate – albeit often disgracefully perfunctory.

But there is also increasing pressure on social media to ban content of which governments and interest groups disapprove. Facebook, Twitter and the rest usually acquiesce, fearing that they could otherwise face new legislation.

Social media occupy an anomalous position in our society. Sold originally as a ‘public square’ where we could all meet and communicate, they avoid restrictions placed on orthodox publishers. Yet in practice their owners feel obliged, under pressure from politicians and public outrage, to ban certain types of written and audio-visual content. As private organisations, they surely have a right to do so. Yet Twitter, Facebook and YouTube exercise huge market power, and their interventions are often seen as arbitrary.

Was it reasonable for Twitter to ban former US President Donald Trump for incendiary remarks in the last days of his Presidency? Many think so, but others disagree. Few may lament Facebook’s bans on holocaust denial and QAnon conspiracy theories, but quite where the line should be drawn is unclear. There are pressures to ban climate change ‘denial’ (a vague category, which might well ensnare legitimate scientific or economic concerns), while during the pandemic the Royal Society and the British Academy have called for social media companies to ‘remove harmful information and punish those who spread misinformation’ about COVID-19 vaccination. In January 2021 YouTube removed Talk Radio from its platform, apparently because interviewees or callers had had queried government lockdown policy, although this ban was later rescinded.

There is a long history of restrictions forced on the media of the day – books, newspapers, the theatre, cinema, broadcasting – by government diktat and less formal means. What is very new is the downside of the democratisation of means of communication – Twitterstorms of online invective against people or institutions who have transgressed, or are thought to have transgressed, rapidly changing social norms and mores.

Some dismiss these eruptions of censure as transgressors ‘getting what they deserved’ or abuse to be shrugged off on the principle that, though sticks and stones may break their bones, names will never hurt them. Many are particularly happy to see pulled down those who have achieved any degree of status or celebrity. But this is an ignoble sentiment, partly based on envy. A degree of mutual hostility has always lain beneath the surface of complex societies. But technology has empowered people to express this hostility more easily, much more rapidly, and at little cost to themselves.

But there is a cost to real individuals – humbler folk as well as celebrities – and their families. This is held to be justified by trumpeting some abstract principle, or to address theoretical offence given to some abstract group or ‘community’.

We should also not ignore the future restraints which this places on the free speech of others who, although not particularly sympathetic to the individuals penalised by the online mob, may be inhibited from expressing any opinion at all for fear of giving offence to somebody and suffering the same fate.

Such inhibition may be class- and generation-based. Those who went to university and are acquainted with metropolitan thinking, or simply have fewer miles on the clock, may be able to negotiate the ever-changing rules of discourse and come out with the approved banalities. Others, like the unfortunate Greg Clarke, formerly chairman of the Football Association, are not so nimble.  Clarke was forced to resign for clumsy speech such as describing footballers of colour as ‘coloured’. Or remember the Cambridge college porter and Labour councillor Kevin Price, whose dismissal was demanded by students for refusing to support a council motion that ‘trans women are women’: how many college porters or other working-class individuals with similar doubts about transgenderism will dare to voice them in future?

The obloquy which results from challenging the ever-shifting consensus is too often unmitigated by protection from our great ‘liberal’ institutions, such as universities, newspapers and charities. They sometimes seem only too eager to agree with demands for people’s heads for opinions which would have caused nobody to bat an eyelid in the recent past.

What is particularly worrying is that it takes relatively small numbers ‘calling out’ some hapless individual in order for institutions to cave in. The power of social media is such that within minutes several hundred people with little better to do may dive into some dispute, even though they may have given the matter little thought and represent a tiny fraction of all those potentially concerned with the event. Craven executives are unwilling to defend themselves, their staff or their clients for fear of the online mob’s attention being redirected to them.

Long ago John Stuart Mill warned against the ‘tyranny of the majority’; now, perhaps, it is the hyperactive minority which exercises a new type of tyranny.

Sure, in longer perspective, today’s restrictions on free speech and penalties against speech transgressions may seem trivial. Nobody is burnt at the stake any longer for their religious principles, or imprisoned for demanding a wider franchise. Books are not banned by the government; no Lord Chamberlain vets plays before they can be staged. Swear words and simulated sex on television are commonplace, while Lord Alfred Douglas’s ‘love that dare not speak its name’ is rarely silent. And you can be just as rude as you like about Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage on Mock the Week. Compared with China, or Iran, or dozens of hellish polities, we have it very easy.

But there is a growing sense that, having thrown off the obvious shackles on free speech in the 1960s and 1970s, we are insidiously imposing new, and ultimately more dangerous, restrictions on freedom of thought and expression. Upcoming generations are aware that they have to be very careful what they say in public or post online. If they offend anyone they run the risk of losing their job or even facing criminal penalties. Films, plays and books produced in the past are suspect, and must be accompanied by trigger warnings; now-offensive words and phrases must be removed or bleeped.

At school, university and at work there is a censoriousness about dissident behaviour, speech or thought which is not a million miles – though perhaps in a different way and with less obvious drabness – from that of former East Germany or the Soviet Union. These are worrying times for many people, classical liberals very much amongst them.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

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