A new study shows people may be censoring themselves without realizing it.
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?
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."
"What this research shows is that in the presence of surveillance, our country's most vulnerable voices are unwilling to express their beliefs online."
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 "knowing one's online activities are subject to government interception and believing these surveillance practices are necessary for national security play important roles in influencing conformist behavior."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most significant conformist effect was from people who supported surveillance. They turned out to be more likely to conceal other dissenting opinions, which they felt strayed from the majority view.
When such individuals "perceive they are being monitored, they readily conform their behavior—expressing opinions when they are in the majority, and suppressing them when they're not," the paper concluded. These findings suggest that a person's "fear of isolation from authority or government" adds new "chilling effects" to public discourse.
"What this research shows is that in the presence of surveillance, our country's most vulnerable voices are unwilling to express their beliefs online," said Elizabeth Stoycheff, associate professor of journalism and new media at the Department of Communication, Wayne State University, and lead author of the paper. "This finding is problematic because it may enable a domineering, majority opinion to take control of online deliberative spaces, thus negating deliberation."
But, she added, the increasing complexity of surveillance, and its use in tandem with private industry, means that more research is essential to understand how surveillance is altering the way people interact online, with content, and with one another.
The study happens to confirm recent comments by Snowden himself last Saturday, during a live video address to a gathering of whistleblowers, journalists and technologists in Berlin.
"It's the minorities who are most at risk" from the impact of mass surveillance, Snowden said. "Without privacy there is only society, only the collective, which makes them all be and think alike. You can't have anything yourself, you can't have your own opinions, unless you have a space that belongs only to you."