Spy programs cause people to voluntarily suppress their own thoughts and ideas according to a recent study.
The Washington Post published an article on 3/28 detailing a new study on how knowledge of government surveillance programs could enable self-censorship of dissenting opinions online by social media users.
Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly published the study which concluded that subjects who were aware of mass surveillance programs reacted by suppressing their own opinions online if they were perceived to contradict the status quo.
This research illustrates the silencing effect of participants’ dissenting opinions in the wake of widespread knowledge of government surveillance, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.
The “spiral of silence” is a well-researched phenomenon in which people suppress unpopular opinions to fit in and avoid social isolation. It has been looked at in the context of social media and the echo-chamber effect, in which we tailor our opinions to fit the online activity of our Facebook and Twitter friends. But this study adds a new layer by explicitly examining how government surveillance affects self-censorship. Source
Researchers first surveyed participants about their political beliefs, personality traits and online activity in order to construct a profile for each person before creating random sample groups. In one group, each participant was aware of government surveillance while in other groups subjects were unaware of their lack of privacy. Psychologists then asked each participant about a specific geopolitical event and those who were primed with knowledge of surveillance were less likely to share their opinions than those who had not been aware of spy programs.
Lead researcher Elizabeth Stoycheff was disturbed by the results of the study.
“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 added that people who have nothing to hide with respect to their political beliefs often censor themselves when introduced to the concept of online privacy concerns.
“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.
“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.”
The study revealed that ultimately, the NSA is not just a circumvention of the fourth amendment, it could also enable people to voluntarily suppress their own first amendment rights as well.