Mass Surveillance Has a "Chilling Effect" on Online Expression

The people who say they "have nothing to hide" are the most skittish about commenting on controversial topics on social media.


Turns out people who believe they have

Chilling effect.

"nothing to hide" hold back more than anyone else when it comes to expressing "minority" opinions on social media. 

A study published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, titled "Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook's Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Monitoring" theorizes, "knowing one is subject to surveillance and accepting such surveillance as necessary act as moderating agents in the relationship between one's perceived climate of opinion and willingness to voice opinions online."

Put more succinctly, even though most Americans have some working knowledge of the revelations laid bare in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of the agency's mass surveillance of the population, and even though a majority of Americans deem such generalized snooping "unacceptable," the mere knowledge that online communications are "subject to government interception" influences "conformist behavior."

Motherboard summarized the study's methodology:

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 results indicated that people who perceived their own opinions to be in the minority were less likely to comment, but so were people who felt their opinions were in the majority yet believed that government surveillance of their online activity was necessary.

The study's author, Elizabeth Stoycheff of Wayne State University told the Washington Post:

"The fact that the 'nothing to hide' individuals experience a significant chilling effect speaks to how online privacy is much bigger than the mere lawfulness of one's actions. It's about a fundamental human right to have control over one's self-presentation and image, in private, and now, in search histories and metadata," she said.

Stoycheff is also concerned about the quietly oppressive behavior of self-censorship.

"It concerns me that surveillance seems to be enabling a culture of self-censorship because it further disenfranchises minority groups. And it is difficult to protect and extend the rights of these vulnerable populations when their voices aren't part of the discussion. Democracy thrives on a diversity of ideas, and self-censorship starves it," she said. "Shifting this discussion so Americans understand that civil liberties are just as fundamental to the country's long-term well-being as thwarting very rare terrorist attacks is a necessary move."

Writing at The Atlantic, Kaveh Waddel notes that "a simple reminder of everyday surveillance" can also affect people's behavior in non-digital life:

Studies have shown that being watched can make people less likely to commit some crimes, or to act in ways that don't conform to widely held morals.

One 2013 study, for example, found that when restaurants installed monitoring software to alert managers about stealing employees, weekly revenue went up, suggesting that employees were changing their behavior in response to the knowledge that they were being watched.

But commenting on controversial topics isn't the same as skimming off your employer's bottom line. The "self-censorship" caused by the spectre of Big Brother watching our 0s and 1s isn't likely to do much besides make people's personally-curated echo chambers even more homogeneous. As Stoycheff said, government surveillance "changes the assumption that we've been working on this whole time, that the Internet is a safe space for deliberation."

If the people who feel they have "nothing to hide" decide to pre-emptively hide their ideas and opinions, then the robust exchange of ideas through which we all have something to potentially learn from one another is threatened.

Watch Reason TV's interview with Edward Snowden below.

NEXT: Bono: Send in the Clowns To Beat ISIS

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  1. the assumption that we’ve been working on this whole time, that the Internet is a safe space for deliberation.

    Spoken like someone who has never actually seen the internet.


    2. Spoken like someone who has never actually seen the internet.

      Right, on several levels. Not only has the SJW community taken over the public-facing part, the associated bureaucrats have firmly established that the haggard old neckbeards who insisted the internet is fundamentally free were dead wrong.

      Does anyone else remember a time when you could post pretty much anything short of messages threatening the president directly and both the website owner as well as ISPs weren’t just able, but unofficially obligated to tell LEOs to ‘fuck off’? The idea that device manufacturers are being given the choice to be in their pocket or under their gun makes those days seem surreal by comparison.

  2. People with nothing to hide don’t hold minority or controversial opinions. That’s why they have nothing to hide.

    I, on the other hand, have everything to hide, due to my advocacy of forced coprophagia and child-rape.

    1. You’re doing a hell of poor job of hiding it, sir.

      Unless you’re admitting to the least serious of your misdeeds to make people think it is a comprehensive list — in which case, well played.

      1. To any government agent who may be reading this comment board, Gojira was making a hyperbolic joke. (In case their /sarc meters are broken)

  3. I guess my personality and philosophy will get me up against the wall before it has any pockmarks in it.

    1. Now there is a game worth playing with the Reason crew! “If I get put against the wall before you, you owe me a beer!”

      1. Indeed, Mr. Drew, possibly due to the fact that none of us would have to buy beer for a dead person (unless we then get to drink it on his or her behalf, you know, in memory and out of respect for them standing up for their principles).

        1. Hey, I’ll even pour it out onto your grave. I’ll just pass it thru my kidneys first.

          1. Jim Morrison fans approve of your comment.

            1. Uh Oh, I withdraw it then.

  4. [insert “death by woodchipper” reference]

    1. I see how it works around these parts – I’m busy typing my wood chipper disclaimer to sarcasmic on Hinkle’s thread and you guys post wood chipper references on this one while I’m in mid-type.

      *attempts to narrow gaze in idiom of Switzy*

      1. It’s wood chipper references and euphemisms all the way down.

    2. Hmmm, how about this one?

      What am I supposed to say, Dale? “Oh hidy ho officer! We’ve had a doozy of a day. There we were minding our own business, just doing chores around the house when kids started killing themselves all over my property.”

  5. A certain wood chipper incident has ensured that I post a lot less now than I did before.

    The process is the punishment, and it works.

    1. There is a little preetender in all of us.

      1. AAW and PREETENDER walk into a bar…


  6. Who cares about NSA?


    It’s the US Attorney of Southern New York that you should worry about, woodchippers.

  7. a fundamental human right to have control over one’s self-presentation and image

    What’s up with people arguing against mass state surveillance by citing made-up “rights”? Isn’t it enough to know that if you give the state a tool to fuck you over with, at some point it’s gonna get used?

    1. The funny thing is, you do have a “fundamental right” to have control over your self-presentation and image. It’s called self-discipline.

      1. a fundamental human right to have control over one’s self-presentation and image

        Why can’t we just say “free speech”? Your self-presentation is your speech, that should not be penalized or chilled by the government.

        Now, saying you have control over your “image” is a little tougher, since your image is affected by other people’s free speech and beliefs.

  8. Facebook (and other social media) has a reporting tool and people use it frequently and maliciously. I don’t doubt that Facebook sends up “problematic” comments to the government watchdogs. If I’m afraid my “friend” is going to report me, that’s even more chilling than some nebulous Big Brother concept (not me personally, I don’t give a shit and fully expect black vans someday).

    1. That’s how Stalin and Mao managed it; everyone was responsible for reporting on everyone around them, including your own kids.

      1. That’s why you need to report on your kids right away. Stay ahead of the little bastards.

        1. That way, when they go to rat you out, you can say its in retaliation and you’re a whistle-blower.

          1. I’m far more afraid of people at my place of work find out that I’m a libertarian via social media than the government. Academia doesn’t look too kindly on our kind.

  9. “Mass Surveillance Has a “Chilling Effect” on Online Expression”

    More so on other websites, I’m sure.

    Here at Hit & Run, it just gave birth to Woodchipper Nation.

    Fuck you, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the State of New York!

    My name is spelled K-E-N S-H-U-L-T-Z.

    1. Cant be said enough Ken.

      As irritated as I get with some of the philosophical differences I have with the Reason writers I still respect them. To their credit they did stand up for free speech when they had a lot to lose. They showed courage and principle. They won because they called a petty tyrant’s bluff and because a lot of others stood up with them. Ken White over at Popehat deserves huge praise as well. No doubt there are a lot of other people I don’t know about.

      They still provide what is probably the freest forum on the innertubz.

      As for woodchippers Preet should hop in one himself. Feet first. Fuck you Preet.

      1. I have nothing relevant to add to this comment/post/bluster.

        1. It sounds like you have a chip on your shoulder, Rhywun. Here, let me brush it off.

          1. If you don’t keep the feed rollers oiled well then larger branches can cause some spit back.

            Proper wood chipper maintenance is very important.

            1. As the old saying goes, “The Woodchipper of Liberty needs to be maintained by and oiled with patriots and tyrants, respectively.”

      2. But only after he gets bored of putting politicians in jail.

        1. Looks like Deblasio might be next. I dunno if he has enough on Cuomo yet but one can dream.

      3. Preach it, Suthen.

        I know I love me some carping (the more subjective and picayune the better) about Reason and its writers, but I spend time here because I like it and respect the people who make it possible.

        1. I really don’t have issue with the writers positions. Even the ones that are more slim Ls than the others. I am a pragmatist and pretty much everything out of Reason’s pulp hole would be light years better than what we have.

          “When IRS stand for Individual Robot Servant and the UN is low rent housing, we can argue over the Park Service.”
          – My most practical libertarian friend

          1. This. There’s a lot to argue about in this philosophy. There’s also a big picture.

            1. Plus, whenever we forget what’s going on in the wider derp-webz, Amsoc shows up and reminds us just how bad it is out there!

  10. The War on Terror looks more like the War on Drugs every day; much more to do with controlling the masses than either of those purported objects of concern. It is just what big governments do.

    1. One is a subset of the other. Not sure which.

    2. Well it took a 40 year war on drugs to even finance a war on terror, sooo…..

  11. When a supporter of the police state says if you are not doing anything wrong you have nothing to worry about, I always tell them I’m doing something wrong.

    1. Do you ever ask them who they think is deciding what is wrong? Cause it ain’t them.

      1. I always reference the Salem witch trials. I’m not private because I’m ashamed of any given thing I do, I’m private because humans are susceptible to myriad biases and failings of perception. If they don’t know you/something that you do, they will misinterpret it or misunderstand it. If they don’t understand it, they’ll fear it. And if they’re afraid but juiced up on the courage of popular support and peer pressure, they well react violently. And that’s assuming good intentions and the absence of malice, or else it gets much worse. I’m private because I’d rather not die for what you believe.

  12. meh, why go through all that? if I was the nsa would probably just create and maintain various libertarian, anarchist and “anti-government” websites *cough**cough* to keep tabs on all wrong thinking people.

    1. The NSA neither needs to create or maintain such websites, just mass collect what gets published there.

      Which they do.

      The fuckers.

  13. They don’t scare me, I’ll whatever I want!

    And if they don’t like it, they should all lower themselves feet-first into a nice warm bath.

    1. of H2SO4

    2. They can all just f f f f fade away.

  14. i, For one, welcome oUr Controlling overlords. i thinK their wOrk is Fine and necessary For a Safe and happy Life for All. many people may VotE this comment down if we had such ResourceS; i don’t care.

    1. Brilliant /sarc!

  15. and feature not bug

  16. Thanks reason, for your continued support of an open comment section.

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  18. Can’t a man just make a decent living of his woodchipper commissions, without everyone getting all prickly about it?

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