New Study Shows Mass Surveillance Breeds Meekness, Fear and Self-Censorship
New Study Shows Mass Surveillance Breeds Meekness, Fear and Self-Censorship
By Glenn Greenwald / theintercept.com
May 1, 2016

newly published study from Oxford’s Jon Penney provides empirical evidence for a key argument long made by privacy advocates: that the mere existence of a surveillance state breeds fear and conformity and stifles free expression. Reporting on the study, the Washington Post this morning described this phenomenon: “If we think that authorities are watching our online actions, we might stop visiting certain websites or not say certain things just to avoid seeming suspicious.”

The new study documents how, in the wake of the 2013 Snowden revelations (of which 87% of Americans were aware), there was “a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al-Qaeda,’ “car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.'” People were afraid to read articles about those topics because of fear that doing so would bring them under a cloud of suspicion. The dangers of that dynamic were expressed well by Penney: “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.”

As the Post explains, several other studies have also demonstrated how mass surveillance crushes free expression and free thought. A 2015 study examined Google search data and demonstrated that, post-Snowden, “users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the US government” and that these “results suggest that there is a chilling effect on search behavior from government surveillance on the Internet.”

The fear that causes self-censorship is well beyond the realm of theory. Ample evidence demonstrates that it’s real – and rational. A study from PEN America writers found that 1 in 6 writers had curbed their content out of fear of surveillance and showed that writers are “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” Scholars in Europe have been accused of being terrorist supporters by virtue of possessing research materials on extremist groups, while British libraries refuse to house any material on the Taliban for fear of being prosecuted for material support for terrorism.

There are also numerous psychological studies demonstrating that people who believe they are being watched engage in behavior far more compliant, conformist and submissive than those who believe they are acting without monitoring. That same realization served centuries ago as the foundation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: that behaviors of large groups of people can be effectively controlled through architectural structures that make it possible for them to be watched at any given movement even though they can never know if they are, in fact, being monitored, thus forcing them to act as if they always are being watched. This same self-censorsing, chilling effect of the potential of being surveilled was also the crux of the tyranny about which Orwell warned in 1984:

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

This is a critical though elusive point which, as the Post notes, I’ve been arguing for years, including in the 2014 TED talk I gave about the harms of privacy erosions. But one of my first visceral encounters with this harmful dynamic arose years before I worked on NSA disclosures: it occurred in 2010, the first time I ever wrote about WikiLeaks. This was before any of the group’s most famous publications.

What prompted my writing about WikiLeaks back then was a secret 2008 Pentagon Report that declared the then-little-known group a threat to national security and plotted how to destroy it: a report which, ironically enough, was leaked to WikiLeaks, which then published it online. (Shortly thereafter, WikiLeaks published a 2008 CIA report describing (presciently, it turns out) how the best hope for maintaining popular European support for the war in Afghanistan would be the election of Barack Obama as President: since he would put a pretty, popular, progressive face on war policies.)

As a result of that 2008 report, I researched WikiLeaks and interviewed its founder, Julian Assange, and found that they had been engaging in vital transparency projects around the world: from exposing illegal corporate waste-dumping in East Africa to political corruption and official lies in Australia. But they had one significant problem: funding and human resource shortfalls were preventing them from processing and publishing numerous leaks. So I wrote an article describing their work, and recommended that my readers support that work either by donating or volunteering. And I included links for how they could do so.

In response, a large number of American readers expressed – in emails, in the comment section, at public events – the fear to me that, while they support WikiLeaks’ work, they were petrified that supporting them would cause them to end up on a government list somewhere or, worse, charged with crimes if WikiLeaks ended up being formally charged as a national security threat. In other words, these were Americans who were voluntarily relinquishing core civil liberties – the right to support journalism they believe in and to politically organize – because of fear that their online donations and work would be monitored and surveilled. Subsequent revelations showing persecution and surveillance against WikiLeaks and its supporters, including an effort to prosecute them for their journalism, proved that these fears were quite rational.

There is a reason governments, corporations, and multiple other entities of authority crave surveillance. It’s precisely because the possibility of being monitored radically changes individual and collective behavior. Specifically, that possibility breeds fear and fosters collective conformity. That’s always been intuitively clear. Now, there is mounting empirical evidence proving it.

 
0.0 ·
0
Trending Today
Globalization Makes No Sense
Chris Agnos · 27,877 views today · When I lived in San Francisco, I often would marvel at the movement of goods through the ports across the bay in Oakland. Full container ships would enter the bay one after...
Proof of Evolution That You Can Find on Your Body
4 min · 13,595 views today · Vestigial structures are evolution's leftovers — body parts that, through inheritance, have outlived the context in which they arose. Some of the most delightful reminders of...
The Most Astounding Fact about the Universe
3 min · 4,949 views today · This is Neil Degrasse Tyson's response when asked to describe the most astounding fact about the universe. Background music is the cinematic orchestra - To build a home.
Stunning Small Homes Form Part of a Communal Compound for Best Friends
Lighter Side · 4,232 views today · If you’re lucky enough to have longtime friends even as an adult, then you know probably already know how much it means to be able to spend time together. Maybe you even have a...
How Norway Avoided Becoming a Fascist State
George Lakey · 3,350 views today · Instead of falling to the Nazi party, Norway broke through to a social democracy. Their history shows us polarization is nothing to despair over.
To Change Everything, Start Everywhere
8 min · 3,028 views today · To Change Everything, Start Everywhere! The case for complete self-determination—a guide for the furious, the curious, and the pure of heart. To Change Everything: An...
The Foiled Bomb Plot in Kansas That Didn't Make Trump's Terror List
5 min · 2,879 views today · When a plot by a pro-white militia to bomb a Somali mosque in Kansas was foiled by the FBI last October, the aborted conspiracy received little national coverage - nor did it...
The London Anarchist Group Squatting Mansions to Fight Homelessness
6 min · 2,645 views today · London squatting activists ANAL (Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians) are squatting empty multi-million pound buildings and opening them up to the homeless.
Where the Term "Redneck" Came From
15 min · 2,632 views today · If you don't know this story, you'll never look at the word the same again.  This is just a window into the sometimes shocking, subversive and untold history of the United...
Without Saying a Word This 6 Minute Clip From Samsara Will Make You Speechless
6 min · 2,380 views today · Can you put this video into words? It's a clip from the phenomenal documentary Samsara, directed by Ron Fricke, who also made Baraka.  If you're interested in watching...
Transition From Caterpillar to Butterfly as Analogy for Social Change
4 min · 2,327 views today · An exceprt from Crossroads: Labor Pains of a New Worldview in which Dr. Bruce Lipton talks about the fractal nature of reality and compares the current global awakening and the...
From Sanctuary City to Liberated City
Frank Lara · 2,082 views today · In just one week, with several strokes of a pen, Trump unleashed upon the working class in the U.S. an attack not seen in decades. From his attack on the flawed Affordable Care...
The Fire Within
Words by Sophie Scholl - Illustrations by Gavin Aung Than · 1,806 views today · Sophie Scholl (1921-1943) was a German activist who is famous for speaking out against the Nazi regime. Scholl was a member of a protest group called The White Rose, which...
Michael Moore Wants to Help You Find Your Next Anti-Trump Protest
Sarah Ruiz-Grossman · 1,686 views today · The Resistance Calendar lists upcoming rallies across the country.
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 1,539 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 1,108 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
10 Words Every Girl Should Learn
Soraya Chemaly · 1,046 views today · "Stop interrupting me."  "I just said that." "No explanation needed." In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My...
Redneck Revolt Presents: A Message to the Patriot Movement
6 min · 969 views today · Over the past few weeks, Redneck Revolt has been communicating with a former member of a III% Patriot Militia based out of Ohio. Peter made contact with our organization after...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 805 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Compassion, the Antidote
Martin Doblmeier · 802 views today · Thich Nhat Hanh has published nearly 100 books and is one of the best-known teachers of Zen Buddhism in the world today. In the early 1960s his practice of what he termed...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
New Study Shows Mass Surveillance Breeds Meekness, Fear and Self-Censorship