Here's More Evidence That NSA Fears Are Chilling Online Discussions

Surveillance is the darkened background upon which the daily routine of online communication plays out, and it invariably alters it.

When the Snowden leaks dropped last year, some feared that the reveal widespread state surveillance would be followed by a clamping down on transparency efforts. A new Pew Research poll suggests that the effect is more in line with Kafka than Orwell, however: the threat of ubiquitous surveillance may have resulted in a self-imposed cooling effect on online discussion.

According to report, which is based on a survey of nearly 2,000 Americans' willingness to discuss the surveillance state on- and offline, 86 percent of Americans reported being "very" or "somewhat" willing to discuss NSA-related issues in offline scenarios, but only 42 percent of social media users were willing to discuss it online. 

Moreover, of the 14 percent of Americans unwilling to discuss Snowden or the NSA, virtually none—0.3 percent—said they would turn to social media as an alternative to face-to-face discussion.

Image: Pew

"Overall, the findings indicate that in the case of the Snowden revelations, social media did not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues," the researchers wrote.

The study concludes that this discursive dampening may be the result of what researchers call the "spiral of silence," the tendency to refrain from discussing contentious subjects when you believe your opinion may not be shared by others. The phenomenon has been observed in physical interactions, and the Pew researchers suggest it carries over into the online world. The New York Times agreed.

This conclusion doesn't fully account for the immense disparity between online and offline discussions in terms of people being largely willing or unwilling to discuss the issue, however. And, if it does, then the "spiral of silence" must have some kind of steroidal effect once it becomes digitized. The Pew researchers themselves are careful to note that the correlation between the willingness to speak out and view of others' opinions does not imply causation.

There is another possible explanation, albeit an equally theoretical one, and it has to do with the psychological effects of ubiquitous surveillance; one that considers the asymmetry in power felt by the average internet user faced with an omnipresent, invisible watcher.

We must begin from the realization that Americans appear largely unwilling to talk about government surveillance in exactly the spaces where their opinion could be picked up by organizations who have the authority to detain you if they feel you are a threat to national security. Since the media earthquake of 2013, stories outlining the continually burgeoning nightmare of the American online surveillance regime continue to appear like tremors.

social media may indeed form what Baudrillard called the "anti-theatre of communication"

Surveillance is the background noise of the online universe; always there, always humming itself into eventual invisibility. This cannot be ignored. The mental weight of constant surveillance may indeed have engendered a counterintuitive response on platforms designed specifically to facilitate as much conversation as possible.

French media theorist Jean Baudrillard hypothesized in a 1980 essay titled "The Implosion of Meaning in the Media and the Implosion of the Social in the Masses" that modern communication technologies are set up to facilitate as much discussion and interaction among the populace as possible—this much is self-evident in the case of social media like Twitter and Facebook—but with an ulterior motive, or at least overriding side effect: widespread information collection and the eventual silencing of the masses.

This motive, he wrote, is hidden in plain view and intuited by the populace, resulting in a cynical and self-aware use of communicative platforms. Indeed, by playing at facilitating communication but only serving as a medium to demarcate the lines of acceptable discourse—as the Pew poll suggested—and offer users up for analysis but unseen authorities, social media may indeed form what Baudrillard called the "anti-theatre of communication."

Baudrillard envisioned silence as a rational response to the coercive pressure to speak only to be catalogued by a data collection regime. He was writing about market research, but the sentiment rings with an all too familiar timbre in the context of government surveillance. As he writes:

The current strategy of the system is to inflate utterance to produce the maximum of meaning. Thus the appropriate strategic resistance is to refuse meaning and utterance, to stimulate in a hyper-conformist manner the very mechanisms of the system, itself a form of refusal and non-reception. This is the resistance strategy of the masses.

We presume that social media allows us to express ourselves, but the surveillance inherent in the system precludes the possibility

In a medium optimized for the ends of both communication and surveillance, Baudrillard argued, "all that is left are fluid, mute masses, the variable equations of surveys, objects of perpetual tests in which, as in an acid solution, they are dissolved." Indeed, as was the case with the 1968 General Strike in France, online discussion regarding the NSA appears to form a kind of "neutralizing black box" of anti-communication.

To be sure, a curious thing has happened: We presume that social media allows us to express ourselves, but the surveillance inherent in the system precludes the possibility.

I should mention that I have willfully omitted certain conclusions of Baudrillard's theory, because I, like others including philosopher and geologist David Harvey, find them wild and defeatist. For example, Baudrillard argues that the big takeaway from the masses' silence is the assumption that society is a kind of delirious hologram propped up by mass media. Sound about right? No, of course not.

Still, Baudrillard's theory is useful, perhaps even necessary, in thinking through the implications of surveillance and digital communications on public discourse.

With all this in mind, it is entirely possible to presume that the overwhelming, larger than life reality of ubiquitous government surveillance has resulted in a discursive cooling effect. This conclusion, although grounded in theory, also finds weight in the lived experience of internet usage. Who can say that they are unaware of the NSA? The terror watch list? Or, at the very least, Facebook's privacy policies?

Surveillance is the darkened background upon which the daily routine of online communication plays out, and it invariably alters it, while at the same time doing what it does best: making itself invisible, save for the silence of its subjects.