A newly published study has found that people with knowledge that their society or community is subject to mass surveillance, even where that surveillance is widely accepted, and widely condoned by the populace at large, is more likely to censor dissenting or even personal opinions in online environments.
That is at least according to a scientific report in the latest edition of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. The study monitored the effects of subtle, and in some cases almost subliminal messages that reminded the experiments subjects of the mass surveillance that surrounded them.
The scientists found that the majority of participants reacted to the reminders and provided stimulus by suppressing their opinions and true feelings on topics that they considered to be either non-mainstream, or where they thought they would find themselves in the minority.
In effect, it highlights the reasons why many governments would rather their citizens didn’t know that were under an umbrella of state surveillance.
The study lends itself to the social-studies phenomenon known as the ‘spiral of silence.’ In the US, whistle-blower, Edward Snowden has been credited with helping create a ‘spiral of silence’ there after his revelations revealed to the American public just how ingrained the culture of surveillance had become entrenched in the years after 9/11.
The study found subjects who were “primed of government surveillance significantly reduced the likelihood of speaking out in hostile opinion climates. These findings introduce important theoretical and normative consequences. Theoretically, it adds a new layer of chilling effects to the spiral of silence. This is the first study to provide empirical evidence that the government’s online surveillance programs may threaten the disclosure of minority views and contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion.”
The idea behind the ‘spiral,’ is that people avoid stating a true opinion on a subject to fit in with ‘friends’ on social media, and also not to bring attention to themselves from listening government ears.
Lead researcher of the study, Elizabeth Stoycheff, said she was concerned about what her team discovered when their experiment had concluded:
“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….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.”
So much for democracy and the internet.