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  • Robert McLeod

Anonymous online abuse is a threat to freedom of speech

Updated: Aug 8, 2019


So much of our democratic way of life depends on reasonable, courteous and informed debate and discussion. We speak and argue with people with whom we have different views, often passionately and sometimes discourteously. We don’t always agree with each other’s views but within civilised limits we respect each other’s rights to express them.

That all falls apart with the anonymity of the internet and the problem is that this undermines our society and the way it functions.

Online abuse from anonymous accounts – often personal and frankly sometimes crazy – has led to a polarisation of discussion and our inability to hear, let alone listen to, opposing viewpoints.

As a journalist, I relied on the ability to listen to different and reflect different views, to challenge them openly and hopefully leave the reader better informed. The polarisation of debate and discourse is a threat to that function.

When I founded MLex market insight, a global news business with operations in 15 cities across five continents, I predicated the service on ensuring our journalists and editors reported stories factually and fairly, and that armed with that information, people – our readers – made better decisions.

I passionately believe that we all make better decisions when we are better informed. We are better informed when we are able to hear different views. These views are being suppressed with anonymous abuse and it will ultimately lead to a degradation of news services into lowest common denominator propaganda – its happening already.

That doesn’t mean anonymity isn’t sometimes important and necessary and Clean up the Internet understands that. But when we want to engage in the cut and thrust of debate, we must have the courage to stand behind what we say and what we believe. We might have opinions that others may find abhorrent. But we must be free to discuss them without the fear of malevolent abuse.

As a journalist, I care very deeply about freedom of speech and am wary of attempts to regulate it, even with the loftiest of goals. That’s why I support Clean up the Internet’s efforts to find a reasonable and workable solution. To paraphrase the great US jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, freedom of speech doesn’t give anyone the right to shout “fire” in a crowded cinema.

It is also impossible to ignore the fact that much of this anonymous online abuse is directed against women, from young single mothers to the most accomplished academics and business people. As a society we cannot afford to have these voices marginalized from the debate.

Freedom of speech, a cornerstone of our modern life, is about the right to have the freedom to speak and anonymous online abuse is a threat to that.


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