The internet and social media have been touted as democratizing forces. A recent study suggests that knowing there is government and private cyber surveillance results in self-censorship of minority opinions and creating a dominant voice online.
Since Edward Snowden exposed the National Security Agency’s use of controversial online surveillance programs in 2013, there has been widespread speculation about the potentially deleterious effects of online government monitoring. This study explores how perceptions and justification of surveillance practices may create a chilling effect on democratic discourse by stifling the expression of minority political views. Using a spiral of silence theoretical framework, 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.
The Spiral of Silence theory was posited in 1974 by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. According to the theory we all have an intuitive sense of what the prevailing opinion is (specifically opinions with a moral content). When the majority opinion is expressed confidently, the holders of minority opinions feel more distanced and more concerned about giving voice to those opinions. The minority opinion is therefore expressed less often leading to a stronger dominant position of the majority (or perceived majority) opinion.
The internet is often praised as counteracting the spiral by providing a place for a vocal minority to converge.
Expressing opinions on the internet can be done anonymously and thereby make the expression of minority opinions more comfortable. However, expressing yourself on the internet means a permanently archived record of your opinion leaving a digital footprint. We now know that the government can and does monitor and archive emails, chats and search history if the target is foreign or an American is believed to be associated with a person of interest. The government has tools to track your internet viewing and form a profile of how you think.
Those who support government surveillance give the “nothing to hide” argument. There is a difference though in concealing wrongdoing and a right to privacy to conceal information about yourself that others may use to harm you.
Elizabeth Stoycheff, lead researcher of the study and assistant professor at Wayne State University, is disturbed by her findings.
“So many people I’ve talked with say they don’t care about online surveillance because they don’t break any laws and don’t have anything to hide. And I find these rationales deeply troubling,” she said.
She said that participants who shared the “nothing to hide” belief, those who tended to support mass surveillance as necessary for national security, were the most likely to silence their minority opinions.
“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 concerned that minority groups will be further disenfranchised as a result of government surveillance. I wonder about the spiral of silence effect when mainstream media creates a narrative for “correct” thinking. What about the spiral of silence on college campuses when words and assumed thoughts are menacingly scrutinized?
There are many ways of intimidating thought in a free society. The government has the most injurious potential, but let’s not forget the others. Also, to speak of minority political opinions is not necessarily the same as opinions of political minorities.