Freedom is in the Eye of the Beholder: Trust in National Governments is Associated with Perceived Freedom of Speech

In light of the recent global debate on the morality of mass surveillance programmes, GlobeScan has teamed up with the BBC World Service to ask over 17,000 people what their perspectives are on freedom and the right to privacy. In previous blog posts, we have used this data to show that Peru, Australia and Canada represent the freest democratic states (as indicated by our Perceived Freedom Index), and that an individual’s sense of freedom is not determined by socioeconomic or demographic variables such as social class or gender, but rather by national political structure.  We have also shown that perceived freedom of the media has dramatically declined since 2007 (59% to 40%). In this post, we explore another dimension that is related to the right to freedom of speech.
The right to free speech originally appeared in the first amendment of the United States Constitution in 1791. This sentiment, which has become a key dimension on which the efficacy of democratic governance is measured, has been echoed in the drafting of constitutional law for centuries since. In the fallout of the Second World War, member states of the United Nations included free speech as a central component of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian equivalent, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was signed into law by Queen Elizabeth II in 1982.
Data from the BBC World Service poll suggests that across the 17 surveyed countries, 75% of respondents report feeling free to discuss any issue in public. This finding suggests that the governance structures of these countries are generally ensuring that their citizens are able to speak freely. Further analyses reveal however, that this sense of freedom seems to be intimately tied to the degree to which an individual trusts their national government. Citizens that trust their government tend to feel liberated to speak their mind. Those who do not trust their government on the other hand, tend not to feel as liberated.
Social science literature suggests that institutional trust reflects the expectation of the institution to perform in a way that benefits society. Trust in national government is therefore the consequence (rather than the cause) of the government’s performance in the eyes of its citizens. Data from our 2014 GlobeScan Radar, a global research programme that tracks business and societal issues, shows a decline in citizen’s trust in national government since 2013 (see chart below).

But fret not for those who do not trust their government, as our analyses also show that the internet provides this group with the opportunity to engage in free speech. Differences between those with low levels of trust in their national government and those with high levels of trust disappear when self-expression is considered within the context of the internet. This data can be seen in the interactive chart below.

The proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) legislation and the recent Edward Snowden revelations of mass surveillance have sparked a public debate over net neutrality and freedom of speech. With perceptions of free speech linked to governmental trust, and with this trust tenuous, it seems even more imperative that we work to secure the Internet as a space where citizens feel they can speak freely.
This post was written by former GlobeScan Senior Research Analyst, Dr. Melaina Vinski.