Trying to sanitise our online lives through regulation will just mask tensions

Last weekend I made an error. I posted a photo on my personal social media account of some political campaigning I’d done. As a former MP, it would have surprised no one. It was the very essence of unremarkable. Yet the response this picture of six smiling friends generated was extraordinary, both in its ferocity and deeply hateful nature.

I’m not going to use the privilege that my role gives me to list the attacks in any detail.  Index is not my personal hobby horse; we aren’t party political, and work with stakeholders across the world who share our commitment to the liberal value of free expression, regardless of their personal politics. This of course means that people have the absolute right to express themselves as they see fit – including their views about me.

But here’s the rub. Because just as someone has the right to say something, or more often than not type something, doesn’t mean that the target of their comments is obliged to hear it – or read it. People have the right to speak; what they do not have is the right to be heard by the target of their ire.So when people exercise their right to criticise those in the public eye, it’s important for all those involved in the conversation to understand that when a line is crossed and abuse becomes threats, laws are being broken. And this has consequences.

The furore my innocuous tweet generated was a timely reminder of quite how horrible online discourse can become, and quite how quickly. A pile-on sees “banter” morph seamlessly into abuse, from which seep the inevitable threats. It is a pattern as old as social media itself, and is all the more common for women in the public eye, especially those who come from a minority community.

Rarely a week goes by when I am not tempted to shut all my accounts down, turn off my access and with it, mute the hate. But I am then reminded of the good that can come from social media – knowing that your friends and family are safe in the midst of a crisis, being able to reach out to former friends and colleagues, and of course being able to seek help when you need it. For Index, it is also an invaluable tool in not only shining a light on the actions of repressive regimes, but of amplifying the stories of dissidents with stories that demand to be heard. it is also a literal lifeline when communicating with correspondents and sources when no other platform is available.

All of which makes moves by governments in the UK and further afield to regulate our online space a minefield unlike any other. The British government is currently legislating to make our online world “safer”. The Canadians and Australians are doing the same, as is the European Union.

My overriding concern is that we are witnessing governments trying to legislate for cultural change. And this is a recipe for failure before any law makes it onto the statute books.

Trying to limit debate and sanitise our online lives through regulation simply masks the tensions, divisions and prejudices that exist in our societies rather than tackling the underlying causes. This is not a counsel of despair, nor a position that says regulation shouldn’t exist. Of course more can be done to make us all safer online, but we need to find the right balance in order to protect ourselves and those that we care about. We need to learn how to use the platforms properly, harnessing the indisputable good of social media while limiting our exposure to the bad. We also need to decide as citizens how we want to manage this space and – perhaps most crucially of all – who should do it. If we decide collectively that our online conversation needs more regulation than a visit to the pub (hint– it shouldn’t), then I for one would like our democratically elected politicians to determine where those lines are drawn, not an algorithm written by a Tech giant or an anonymous regulator.

Which brings me back to the weekend. My mistake wasn’t campaigning, or even tweeting about it, but rather not using the tools available to me to manage my social media and how I wanted to use it. I failed to protect myself. In an ideal world I shouldn’t have to – but my reality online is far from ideal, so going forward I will be limiting how I use social media (again) and how I engage with people. The reality is this doesn’t limit anyone else’s free expression, only my own. Which is my choice.

I run one of the oldest free expression organisations in the UK. We are 50 years old next month. I spend my professional life campaigning to make sure that the persecuted are heard – that people are not silenced for expressing themselves, protecting people’s right to have an opinion regardless of whether it is popular or not. I won’t spend my time defending the indefensible – the bullies, the racists, the misogynists, and the trolls. They have a right to speak but I have the right to ignore them, which is what they deserve.

Ruth Smeeth: “Index will always be a home for people who want to be heard”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”104009″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]There are so many ways you can infringe on someone else’s free speech and obviously some examples are much more egregious than others. Some instances undermine the very premise of this most basic of human rights whilst others are so personal that they create a chilling effect on people’s ability to participate in their own national conversation.

This week, we’ve been able to witness everything on the spectrum from people being trolled for taking a stand against racism to Maria Ressa facing yet more legal action in the Philippines. There is also the awful case of one of the key witnesses in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder trial being found with a slit throat on the morning they were due to give evidence.

Each of these issues demands their own platform, their own space to explore what is happening and what it means both for the individuals concerned and for the societies we live in, whether they be physical or virtual. Context and analysis are key; collectively we need to understand what each of these cases mean for our society and where they fit into the current debate on free speech.

Index was launched, nearly half a century ago, to be a voice for the persecuted, giving space to those people who could not be published elsewhere. We were also tasked with shining a spotlight on repressive regimes, exposing authoritarian attacks on free speech and celebrating those people who were brave enough to speak out. And just as importantly we were established to ensure that the UK remained a bastion of hope for those people who lived in societies which didn’t respect their core human rights. These three pillars remain at the core of what we do and who we are.

Index will always be a home for people who want to be heard.  We will always stand against authoritarian and repressive regimes to protect our collective free speech.  And we will stand against anyone who seeks to use their power to silence those less powerful.  Our role is to expose, to listen and to stand with some of the bravest people in the world so that their voices can be heard.  So that you can hear directly from them

To do this we need your help – please take a minute and, if you can, donate to Index so we can keep doing this vital work.[/vc_column_text][vc_btn title=”DONATE” color=”danger” size=”lg” link=”|||”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE TO READ” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Index on Censorship announces Ruth Smeeth as new chief executive 

Index on Censorship has today (Monday 15th June) announced the appointment of Ruth Smeeth as the organisation’s new chief executive. 

Ruth Smeeth was the MP for Stoke-on-Trent-North from 2015 to 2019, and prior to that was deputy director at HOPE not hate.

Ruth Smeeth, chief executive, Index on Censorship, said:

“I’m excited to be joining Index on Censorship at a time when the organisation’s work to protect free speech is more important than ever.  

“As governments and citizens seek to navigate increasingly complex and intimidating global issues – from Covid-19 to systemic racism – we’ve seen just how easily our fundamental right to freedom of expression can be threatened.

“From the arrests of journalists covering Black Lives Matter protests in America to the silencing of medics in China who sought to inform the world about the effects of Covid-19, it’s clear that the fight to enshrine and protect the right to free speech across the world has not yet been won.  

“And this is not just an issue to be tackled abroad. Here in the UK, we’ve seen increasing threats to journalistic freedom as individuals are hounded and attacked simply for doing their jobs.

“Too often, free speech is portrayed as a fringe or foreign issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom of expression should be a mainstream concern, and it is time for a proper debate and discussion about its importance – and its limitations – in a rapidly changing world.

“Index on Censorship is uniquely placed to lead this discussion, alongside the campaign to protect freedom of expression here in the UK and abroad. I look forward to working with stakeholders and supporters to do just that”.

Trevor Phillips, chair, Index on Censorship, said:

“Ruth brings a wealth of relevant knowledge, experience and above all, courage to the organisation at a pivotal moment for Index on Censorship. Her independence of mind and non-partisan approach to freedom of expression is exactly what is needed at a time when the voices of people from all backgrounds need to be heard – not least those from minorities. 

“Ruth’s experience, both as an MP and as a campaigner against fascism and racism, will enable her to champion our cause as we seek to tackle ever more frequent challenges to freedom of expression both across the globe and in every medium”.

Kate Maltby, deputy chair, Index on Censorship, said:

“I could not be more delighted to welcome Ruth as our new chief executive at Index on Censorship. Ruth has a proven record as a campaigner, unwavering in her principles and exceptional in her ability to build cross-partisan coalitions that make substantive change.

“Index on Censorship was founded in 1972, and in its first decades provided lifelines to dissidents as they endured harassment in Soviet regimes. As Index approaches its fiftieth birthday, it can sometimes seem that both progressive and conservative forces forget the lessons of those years. 

“With Ruth at the helm, I am confident that Index on Censorship will play a central role in rebuilding an open, civic and intellectually diverse public sphere. Freedom of expression needs tough defenders, and in Ruth we have one.”

Media enquiries: Luke Holland, 07447 008098, [email protected].

Tearing down the barriers to discussing slavery and racism


Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, which has since been taken down. Credit: Philip Halling

Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, which has since been taken down. Credit: Philip Halling

The most apt description of the impact of the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old African American man who died on 25 May when a police officer leant on his neck and back for eight minutes and 46 seconds, came from a child. Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Ginna simply said: “Daddy changed the world!”

She’s right. Floyd’s death has sparked large-scale, public Black Lives Matter protests around the world, including in the UK. And it was in the UK that Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston last weekend. It was then rolled through the city centre and dumped in Bristol Harbour.

Colston was a member of the Royal Africa Company, which had a monopoly on the slave trade at the time and is believed to be responsible for an estimated 30,000 African deaths.

The toppling of the statue has been both celebrated and criticised. Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, for example, condemned the manner of the statue’s removal, though he admitted that the statue’s presence was an “affront” to black people in the city.

Some have attacked the action as one that is silencing and could set a bad precedent. But was it?

Removing a statue is symbolic and as the national debate about history, slavery and empire shows, it also very significant. The prime minister and other officials have stressed that it is important to follow process in these matters. But the people of Bristol had tried. For years, there had been an ongoing discussion about removing or adding a plaque to contextualise the statue. All efforts had reached a stalemate and frustration grew as suggested language for a plaque was watered down in efforts, some felt, to minimise his crimes. In the end, the whole thing came down and those who tried to stymy efforts to tell a fuller version of history found themselves swept aside as history was made.

It is perhaps in an effort to forestall similar actions that local Labour councils across England and Wales have indicated that they intend to set up commissions to look at other monuments and explore which ones ought to be taken down. This is not a bad thing, but if the public is not engaged in the process then a valuable moment for public education and civic participation could be lost. The act of tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue arguably did more to further a public discussion of slavery, history and racism than the statue ever did standing serenely in place all these years.

It’s an important discussion because putting up a statue is also a political act. Those who decry the removal of statues as erasing history might consider that in the many cases where statues represent editing or curating the past, that is itself a form of erasure. Colston’s statue was erected long after his death and is not even his true likeness. The honouring of the man has less to do with the facts of his life and career than the fact that he had given a lot of money to his home town, for which he was described in no less glowing terms than as one “of the most virtuous and wise” sons of Bristol.

Statues are also about who we wish to hold up for admiration and that is where history is dialogue with the present. It makes sense to discuss to whom we want to draw our eye upwards, to stand head and shoulders above the rest of us? There is potential for a rich discussion on which statues could be added, moved to museums, contextualised or quietly brought down to earth.

Parliament Square is now home to a statue of Nelson Mandela, who was once considered a terrorist by the Conservative government, and Millicent Fawcett, who as a suffragette endured much opposition and criticism of the group’s methods of direct action. With the passage of time, views on these historical figures have changed. The graffiti artist Banksy has suggested putting Colston back on his plinth as part of a new sculpture depicting Black Lives Matter protesters pulling him down. We may yet see public art memorialising these protesters in years to come.

Where will it end? Some ask. The answer is it never ends. Humans are dynamic and creative creatures, always making history and looking back over it. The prevailing view on Colston’s removal is one of broad agreement with the result but not the methods, the familiar “Yes – but not like that.” But if it was comfortable, it wouldn’t be a protest. Nobody advocates violence, but there is another familiar saying: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

The issue of statues is by no means the most important thing at this moment. But it’s not without significance, otherwise he wouldn’t have been there in the first place. We need more discussion about statues, their symbolism and the history around them, not less. Colston’s removal has done that.

Kiri Kankhwende is a freelance journalist who writes about politics, race and human rights