‘Chilling Effect’ of Mass Surveillance Is Silencing Dissent Online, Study SaysPosted: March 21, 2016
A new study shows people may be censoring themselves without realizing it.
Nafeez Ahmed reports: Thanks largely to whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013, most Americans now realize that the intelligence community monitors and archives all sorts of online behaviors of both foreign nationals and US citizens.
But did you know that the very fact that you know this could have subliminally stopped you from speaking out online on issues you care about?
“What this research shows is that in the presence of surveillance, our country’s most vulnerable voices are unwilling to express their beliefs online.”
Now research suggests that widespread awareness of such mass surveillance could undermine democracy by making citizens fearful of voicing dissenting opinions in public.
A paper published last week in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, the flagship peer-reviewed journal of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), found that “the government’s online surveillance programs may threaten the disclosure of minority views and contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion.”
The NSA’s “ability to surreptitiously monitor the online activities of US citizens may make online opinion climates especially chilly” and “can contribute to the silencing of minority views that provide the bedrock of democratic discourse,” the researcher found.
The paper is based on responses to an online questionnaire from a random sample of 255 people, selected to mimic basic demographic distributions across the US population.
Participants were asked to answer questions relating to media use, political attitudes, and personality traits. Different subsets of the sample were exposed to different messaging on US government surveillance to test their responses to the same fictional Facebook post about the US decision to continue airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
They were then asked about their willingness to express their opinions about this publicly—including how they would respond on Facebook to the post; how strongly they personally supported or opposed continued airstrikes; their perceptions of the views of other Americans; and whether they supported or opposed online surveillance.
The study used a regression model—a statistical method to estimate the relationships between different variables—to test how well a person’s decisions to express their opinion could be predicted based on the nature of their opinion, their perceptions of prevailing viewpoints, and their attitude to surveillance.
This sort of model doesn’t produce simple percentages, but provides a statistical basis to explain variances in the factors being tested. In this case, the study found that “35% of the variance in an individuals’ willingness to self-censor” could be explained by their perceptions of whether surveillance is justified.
For the majority of respondents, the study concluded, being aware of government surveillance “significantly reduced the likelihood of speaking out in hostile opinion climates.”
Although more nuanced than a blanket silencing, the study still concluded that…(read more)