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Mass Government Surveillance Is Chilling To Online Dissent

A new study shows that people hold back minority viewpoints when they know they're being watched.

Mass Government Surveillance Is Chilling To Online Dissent

Photo: Jaromir Chalabala via Shutterstock

We act differently when we know we're being watched, and that includes adapting our online behavior because we know that the government is tracking our every move. If you've ever changed what you were about to write in a forum post, or censored a tweet because you thought it might get picked up by the NSA, you already know that this is true.

Self-censorship is particularly dangerous, because it can silence minority opinions, says a new research paper by Wayne State University journalism professor Elizabeth Stoycheff. It can lead, she says, to a "spiral of silence," wherein "individuals, motivated by fear of isolation, continuously monitor their environments to assess whether their beliefs align with or contradict majority opinion."

The Internet allows more views and beliefs to be heard than ever before on Facebook and other social sites. Often, these large, diverse online networks offer a more accurate picture of majority opinion than our close-knit but less diverse real-life relationships, which seems to be a good thing. The problem is that this majority "opinion climate" can dominate, suppressing minority views.

Ilya Andriyanov via Shutterstock

Stoycheff's study shows that surveillance further strengthens this majority opinion, which creates a "chilling effect on democratic discourse by stifling the expression of minority political view."

Security writer Bruce Schneier agrees. This is from his book, Data and Goliath:

Across the U.S., states are on the verge of reversing decades-old laws about homosexual relationships and marijuana use. If the old laws could have been perfectly enforced through surveillance, society would never have reached the point where the majority of citizens thought those things were okay. There has to be a period where they are still illegal yet increasingly tolerated, so that people can look around and say, "You know, that wasn't so bad." Yes, the process takes decades, but it's a process that can't happen without lawbreaking.

To study the effect, Stoycheff designed a test. First, respondents filled out an online questionnaire about U.S. air strikes in Syria and Iraq. The survey also determined their opinion of government surveillance, their political attitudes, and other personality traits and habits. Then the participants were shown a fake Facebook post on air strikes against ISIS, and asked if they would publicly express their opinions on it.

The trick came in the form of a message shown to some of the participants before the reading the fake Facebook post. Here's the message:

The next section of the survey asks for your honest opinions about some controversial political issues. While we make every attempt to ensure your opinions are kept confidential, it is important to keep in mind that the National Security Agency does monitor the online activities of individual citizens, and these actions are beyond the study’s control.

Stoycheff found that the people who said they thought government surveillance to be justified (around 70% of participants), and who said that they themselves had "nothing to hide," were the most likely to change their behavior after seeing the warning message. "Specifically," says the Atlantic's Kaveh Wadell, "these pro-surveillance Internet users tended to avoid sharing opinions that they believed were outside the mainstream."

Of the people who were strongly anti-surveillance, some expressed their opinions fully, and the rest said nothing at all. In no case did they modify their stated opinions. Stoycheff concludes that this group was unaffected by the warning message, because they had already decided where they stood in relation to being spied upon. She writes:

Although not directly measured, the individuals who comprise this group may very well be members of the avant-garde 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 majority of participants, though, the reminder of government surveillance "significantly reduced the likelihood of speaking out in hostile opinion climates."

The conclusion is that if people know they're being watched online, then they hew to the majority opinion. This in turn prevents honest discussion of even mildly controversial topics.

Effectively, government surveillance stifles what might be one of the most important aspects of the Internet—free discourse without borders or other barriers, and (mostly) unlimited by external censorship. And the government has managed to suppress discussion and stifle dissent, all without any mention of violating free speech.

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