What Government Surveillance Really Means For You

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The Internet has been hailed since its inception as a bastion of intellectual freedom. If anyone can create a social media page and post whatever comes to mind, how could it be anything but a democratizing force in a flailing free nation?

A new study by Dr. Elizabeth Stoycheff, published in “Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly,” suggests otherwise.

Stoycheff found that government surveillance of people’s online presence tends to make those with minority views self-censor. This has serious implications for free speech.

This study is the latest in a long line of research on the implications the spiral of silence has on social media usage. It is a well-known sociological phenomenon that suggests people tailor the views they choose to share to fit their environment. Meaning individuals tend to suppress their minority views, whether in public or amongst friends, in favor of social inclusion.

In the context of social media, the spiral of silence has been shown to stifle minority opinions. This makes sense, given the instantaneous nature of the internet and the often enormous backlash social media posts can have. Facebook and Twitter in particular have not proven themselves to be conducive to open-minded, friendly debate.

Stoycheff’s study, however, is the first to question what effect the addition of government surveillance has on the spiral of silence.

The study tested whether a “perceived hostile climate,” combined with an awareness of government surveillance, contributes to the self-censoring of minority views.

Participants in the study shared their typical online behaviors, their political views, and answered a personality questionnaire. Some were primed with a message about NSA surveillance, others were not. All participants were then shown a fictional Facebook post about U.S. airstrikes against ISIS.

They were asked, on a five-point scale, how personally opposed to the airstrikes they were and what they believed the majority opinion was. There were also questions about how justified the strikes were and the likelihood of future terrorist attacks.

The results of the study revealed that the combination of a hostile climate and knowledge of surveillance most strongly contributed to self-censorship when coupled with the belief that surveillance is justified in the name of protection.

That justification contributes to a “nothing to hide” mentality that Stoycheff finds particularly troubling.

“In order to reign in mass surveillance programs, the public first needs to acknowledge that there is a problem with governments and corporations tracking and archiving law-abiding Americans’ online activities,” Stoycheff tells BTRtoday. “It will be an uphill fight to persuade lawmakers to change course if the public itself doesn’t see a problem with these actions.”

These results are surprising in light of the public response to Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of the NSA’s Prism program. Stoycheff’s study suggests that the American public is at ease with “justified” surveillance, even if it makes law-abiding citizens change what they say. Snowden’s catastrophic reveal, however, was initially met with a starkly different reaction.

Shock and anger accompanied the realization that a massive collection of private data had been illegally acquired by the government. The wrath (for the most part) wasn’t pointed at Snowden, who, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, was viewed as a whistleblower more than a traitor, but at the government for infringing so impressively on its own people’s right to privacy.

According to that same poll, the majority of Americans believed that the government’s actions, while conducted in the name of national defense against terrorism, went too far in stripping individual liberties.

What changed between 2013 and today?

Perhaps the 2013 leak was just shocking enough to people. It was an enormous reveal all at once, versus subtle reminders that the NSA could be watching you, reminders embedded in a psychology survey that the public may or may not be taking seriously.

The problem, however, is that those subtle reminders, the “they could be watching at any time” sense of paranoia, should be enough to raise people to defend their right to privacy.

In a profile in The Guardian, Snowden called the NSA program “an existential threat to democracy.” It certainly is, if the mere existence and knowledge of surveillance is enough to cause citizens to suppress their views.

As Stoycheff warned, it becomes much harder to convince the government that its actions are not symptoms of a liberated nation, if it’s not technically the government doing the censoring.

When asked how this particular manifestation of the spiral of silence will affect social media usage going forward, Stoycheff reminded us that identity matters. She chose to imitate a Facebook post because, unlike some other social media, it identifies the user by name.

“Perhaps perceived surveillance on social media that allow for greater anonymity may experience less of a silencing effect,” she suggested to BTRtoday.

Even if that is true, it’s not a good sign. The answer cannot be to move social media activity to non-identity-centric sites like Reddit and 4chan, which tend to be oceans of racism, sexism, and other beta-male bigotry.

Citizens have to feel free and safe to express their views, whether in the majority or the minority, with their name attached.

Snowden told The Guardian that he doesn’t “want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.” What Stoycheff’s study tells us is more than “the government is watching, so edit what you say about ISIS.” It’s more than “we should be able to talk about terrorism, guns, and the military in any way we so choose.” It gets to the heart of what it means to live in a democracy.

If democracy is about protecting the minority, it should go without saying that the minority should not have to edit itself for fear of the government’s ear.