Censorship has been a recent fixture in the news, from former US President Donald Trump’s lawsuit against Facebook, Google, and Twitter for ‘censorship’ to calls in the UK for greater action against racist content posted on social media. At Redfield & Wilton Strategies, our latest research surveys the British public for their views on the censorship of media content, finding the strongest support for the censoring of offensive material posted on social media.
A plurality (40%) of the British public would support the UK Government censoring books with content that it deems sexist, homophobic, or racist. Almost a third (30%) would oppose this prospect, and 24% would neither support nor oppose it. Equal proportions of 18% strongly support and strongly oppose the idea.
Interestingly, women are more likely to support the idea than men: 44% of women would support the Government’s censorship of books with content of this nature, including 20% who would strongly support it, compared to 35% of men who would support it. Accordingly, a higher proportion of men (23%) than women (14%) strongly oppose this form of censorship.
Support for Government censorship of books with offensive content generally decreases with age, with a majority (53%) of those aged 18 to 24 expressing that they would support it, compared to just a third (32%) of those aged 65 and over. Opposition to the prospect of Government censorship of books containing offensive material is highest amongst 55-to-64-year-olds, with 42% opposed, including over a quarter (27%) strongly opposed.
Even so, we do not observe a significant partisan divide in responses to this question: 41% of 2019 Conservative voters would support the UK Government censoring books deemed sexist, homophobic, or racist, as do 46% of 2019 Labour voters.
Government censorship of books has legal grounding in a series of laws called the Obscene Publications Acts dating from 1857, which can remove from publication material that it finds tends to deprave or corrupt. However, in the past 100 years, only eight books have been banned in the United Kingdom—seven for obscenity and one for revealing state secrets—and all rulings have since been overturned, suggesting that plurality public support for the measure is out of step with actual practice.
Corporate censorship offers another avenue of control over media content, with the International Publishers Association noting that publishing companies are increasingly self-censoring their own output. Our research reveals that a plurality of Britons would also support this form of censorship: 42% of respondents say they would support publishers coming together to censor books with content that they deem sexist, homophobic, or racist, compared to 30% who would oppose this form of private, collective censorship, and 24% who would neither support nor oppose the idea.
Again, gender and age emerge as indicators of support. 46% of women would support censorship by publishers, compared to 38% of men. Meanwhile, a clear majority (60%) of those aged 18 to 24 would support publishers censoring books with offensive content, compared to 37% of those aged 65 and over. Once again, opposition is highest among 55-to-64-year-olds, amongst whom 50% would oppose publishers censoring books in this manner, including 25% who would oppose strongly.
Yet, when it comes to potential censorship on social media, a greater consensus is apparent. Overall, 62% of the British public say they would support social media companies censoring sexist, homophobic, or racist content, including 32% who would strongly support the idea. In comparison, 18% would oppose this form of censorship, and 17% would neither support nor oppose it. These high levels of support for social media censorship may be influenced by the recent online racial abuse of several England football players.
Here, age and gender appear less significant predictors of opinion. Clear majorities of both women (63%) and men (61%) support social media companies censoring sexist, homophobic, or racist content. Similarly, across all age brackets, there is majoritarian support for this prospect. In fact, support is slightly higher among those aged 55 to 64 (67%) and 65 and over (66%) than among younger respondents, with 62% of 18-to-24-year-olds saying they would support social media companies censoring offensive content. These findings—that those most likely to oppose the Government and publishers censoring material are the most likely to support social media companies doing so—suggests that Britons view censorship differently depending on its authority.
Finally, we find that most Britons would support television regulator Ofcom having greater powers to fine broadcasters who make comments that Ofcom deems offensive. 57% of the British public—including 63% of 2019 Conservative voters and 56% of 2019 Labour voters—would support this greater authority for Ofcom. By contrast, only 12% would oppose Ofcom having greater regulatory powers, and a further 23% neither support nor oppose this prospect.
Interestingly, here we observe the same reversal of overall age trends as in the previous question: support for greater Ofcom powers increases with age. Whereas a plurality of 18-to-24-year-olds (46%) support this idea, this proportion rises to majorities among 45-to-54-year-olds (64%) and those aged 65 and over (62%).
Overall, there are high levels of support for censorship of sexist, homophobic, or racist content in books and social media. Pluralities of the British public would support the Government or publishing companies censoring offensive content in books, with women and younger respondents particularly supportive of the prospect. However, this support is largely out of step with actual practice, with no books having been censored in the UK since 1991. The highest levels of support for media censorship concern the medium of social media, with a clear majority of Britons across all age groups supportive of social media companies censoring posts that they deem sexist, homophobic, or racist. Similarly, with regards to broadcast television, a majority would support regulator Ofcom having greater powers to fine broadcasters who make comments deemed offensive. Ultimately, it appears that the British public is more supportive of media censorship than current practice permits.