The Nefarious Surveillance State Dangerously Inhibits Self-Expression and a Healthy Democracy
The nefarious brilliance of the surveillance state rests, at least in part, in the fact that it conveys omniscience without the necessity of omnipresence. Since even its verifiable actions are clandestine and shadowy, revealed not through admission but by whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Jeremy Hammond, its gaze can feel utterly infinite. To modify an old phrase, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you—especially given that you now have proof. But if you never know precisely when they’re watching or exactly what they’re looking for, can you ever be paranoid enough?
This is, to some degree, the concern of many Americans, according to a new study from Oxford University. The Washington Post reports researcher Jonathon Penney found that Snowden’s leaks about government surveillance had a “chilling effect” on American adults’ internet habits. Penney looked at Wikipedia searches conducted after June 2013, when news of NSA spying programs so thoroughly dominated headlines that 87 percent of Americans became aware of them. In the wake of the story, he found “a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al-Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.’” The traffic for those pages dropped precipitously after the Snowden files came to light, and continued to slide over the next year, suggesting a “longer-term impact from the revelations.”
“This is measuring regular people who are being spooked by the idea of government surveillance online,” Penney told the Post. "You want to have informed citizens. If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate."
Those findings bolster those of other recent investigations into how the Snowden revelations have affected, and potentially altered, online behavior. The Post cites a 2015 study by digital rights advocate Alex Marthews and MIT professor Catherine Tucker, who queried internet users in countries around the world about their willingness or reluctance to use certain Google search terms. The researchers concluded that in the post-Snowden era, “users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the U.S. government.”
We’ve long known that the mere suggestion of surveillance can be a powerful, and profitable, determinant of behavior. From Jeremy Bentham’s 19-century Panopticon design to the identification of the Hawthorne effect in the 1950s, institutions have made use of real and fabricated all-knowing, all-seeing eyes for profit and productivity, social control and oppression. Until now, there’s been little investigation of the direct link between recent surveillance scandals and how they impact users of new media. These emerging studies prove that just having an awareness of mass surveillance is enough to dissuade ordinary citizens from engaging in perfectly legal actions for fear of unwanted government attention.
[Journalists’] techniques ranged from using encryption and air-gapped computers (which stay completely isolated from unsecured networks, including the Internet), to communicating with sources through disposable "burner" phones, to abandoning electronic communications altogether...As with the journalists, lawyers increasingly feel pressure to adopt strategies to avoid leaving a digital trail that could be monitored. Some use burner phones, others seek out technologies designed to provide security, and still others reported traveling more for in-person meetings. Like journalists, some feel frustrated, and even offended, that they are in this situation. "I'll be damned if I have to start acting like a drug dealer in order to protect my client's confidentiality," said one.
Elizabeth Stoycheff, a Wayne State University professor who focuses on the intersecting points of new media and democracy, recently pointed out that the U.S. now ranks 49th globally in press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. “Let that sink in,” Stoycheff advises, writing on Slate. “America, the longstanding beacon of free speech, performs worse than some partly democratic countries in the global south, like Burkina Faso and Niger. Our nation’s whistleblowers and journalists are not adequately shielded from undue prosecution and self-censorship. Nor are our citizens.”
Even the most innocuous online behaviors have been tempered since the NSA’s sweeping data grabs became public. The U.S. Department of Congress polled 41,000 internet-using households about the way privacy and security concerns influenced online activities. Approximately 18 percent named “data collection by [the] government” one of their foremost fears. In a May 2016 press release, the agency states that, along with other trust-eroding issues such as identity theft and fraud-related topics, “45 percent of online households reported that these concerns stopped them from conducting financial transactions, buying goods or services, posting on social networks, or expressing opinions on controversial or political issues via the internet, and 30 percent refrained from at least two of these activities.” The release also notes that “29 percent of households concerned about government data collection said they did not express controversial or political opinions online due to privacy or security concerns, compared with 16 percent of other online households.”
Stoycheff’s own research further bears this last point out. As part of a study released this month, the researcher and her students asked 250 subjects to fill out a survey providing insight into their online habits, political views and personality traits. Participants were presented with a message that indicated, by way of reminder, “their online activities were subject to surveillance by the U.S. government,” followed by a fake (and judgment-neutral) Facebook post about American airstrikes against ISIL. Researchers then asked participants how likely they would be to publicly voice their thoughts on the contents of the post, how they imagined other Americans viewed the topic and their personal feelings regarding government surveillance.
Ironically, those who said they supported mass surveillance (Stoycheff identified these folks as the “nothing to hide” crowd) were actually more likely to self-censor, avoiding expressing any thoughts they felt were out of step with mainstream opinions. “[W]hen these individuals perceive they are being monitored,” she writes in the paper, “they readily conform their behavior—expressing opinions when they are in the majority, and suppressing them when they’re not.” Conversely, those who stated opposition to government surveillance were unaffected by the cautionary message about government surveillance. They posted opinions without regard to how the majority felt, or consistently kept their opinions to themselves altogether. Stoycheff suggested this tendency perhaps exists because the anti-surveillance group consists of people who are “highly educated and vocal about their views regardless of circumstances, and individuals who are so turned off by surveillance that they are unwilling to ever share political beliefs online.”
For the most part, those who took part in the study were less likely to speak out about their feelings if they held minority opinions. That was particularly true for members of racial minority groups. The Washington Post writes that Stoycheff “found that the non-white respondents in her study (who made up 26 percent of participants) were more likely to say that they did not hold majority opinions. That fact suggests that people of color are more likely to suppress their non-majority opinions, as long as they consider government surveillance justified. (The distribution of pro- and anti-surveillance people among non-whites was about the same as it was among whites, with two-thirds in support of surveillance.)”
So not only does the looming threat of government surveillance, real or theoretical, tamp down personal expression, it effectively squelches dissent, promoting a sort of false groupthink that’s frightening for various reasons. What’s more, it further erases the voices of the marginalized, who are already drowned out by those with numbers on their side. All this strikes me as yet another concrete example of the fundamental incongruities between what America says it is and what it does. Add the constant push to expand surveillance powers, and we grow further from that fairy tale ideal all the time.