The cost of silence: mass surveillance & self-censorship

The true impact of mass surveillance on media freedom can be felt in the moments when writers hesitate to conduct internet searches. With every pause, there will be something missed, something underreported, an opportunity to question lost.

Nik Williams
8 April 2015
DC rally against mass censorship. Flickr/Susan Melkisethian. Some rights reserved.

DC rally against mass censorship. Flickr/Susan Melkisethian. Some rights reserved.

Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison design is the ultimate template of passive disciplinary power. With a viewing tower located at the centre of the complex, prisoners could be watched at all times and in all locations. With the inmates not being able to see inside the tower, surveillance could never be proven, only felt. The possibility of continued surveillance was enough to threaten, coerce and ultimately modify behaviour.

In the digital age, surveillance is more opaque but the results are alarmingly similar. The Snowden revelations have highlighted the capacity of NSA and GCHQ to collate and harvest data from a range of digital platforms, as well as the desired aim to ‘collect it all’. This has brought to light a system that, due to its omnipresence, is able to target everyone irrespective of location, nationality or culpability. But with such a structure in place there is limited space for journalists to be able to investigate and question without fear of being watched.

The dangers made apparent by mass surveillance do not only exist when their actions are felt; there may be no way of knowing you are being monitored, but conversely there is no way of knowing you are not.

‘If you feel someone's looking over your shoulder, there's all kinds of things you will not do…[You're not going to be] able to use facilities because of nameless fear.’ These are the words of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web. The nameless fear he identifies is similar to Bentham’s form of discipline – an invisible but tangible pressure that can disrupt or modify the actions of others without truly being present.

This connection between mass surveillance and self-censorship is never clearer than in Pen International’s report Global Chilling. Interviewing 772 fiction and non-fiction writers from across the globe, Pen International identified a growing unease at mass surveillance and an associated shift in perception and behaviour. Using the freedom house categorisation, the survey found that more than 1 in 3 writers in Free countries (34%) said they had avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic following the Snowden revelations. Further to this, the report goes on to state ‘the levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in democratic countries are approaching the levels reported by writers living in authoritarian or semi-democratic countries.’

In contrast to active controls on press freedom as seen in the blocking and censorship tactics employed by states such as China, North Korea and Iran, the act of self-censorship is an act of passive control – no state has actively restricted these writers from writing – but the result, controlling and limiting what is released, remains the same. In fact, while active control is resource heavy, the passive control brought on by the threat of continued and ubiquitous surveillance is a comparatively resource efficient process. So why enforce through active means, when you can compel journalists to define their own limitations? As Peggy Noonan writes ‘the inevitable end of surveillance is self-censorship.’

While having a direct impact on media freedom and freedom of expression, the act of self-censorship also limits the wealth and variety of information available to the wider population. As outlined in her opinion piece for CNN, Suzanne Nossel, the executive cirector of Pen American center stated:

‘Topics that are foreign, alien or frightening may become all the more so if researchers, writers, journalists and even students are afraid to investigate and explain them.’ 

The effects of such fear can be felt at every stage of the process, from investigation through to the consumption of media reports by the wider public. The continued capture and manipulation of metadata alongside the content of our communications also hollows out the ability for media bodies to meet with and protect sources. Jillian York of the electronic frontier foundation says, ‘The danger of metadata is that it allows the surveiller to map our networks and activities, making us think twice before communicating with a certain group or individual.’ Creating a narrative of its own choosing, ubiquitous mass surveillance transforms the act of communicating into the most dangerous act of all.

According to Pen’s survey, 26% of writers from Free countries stated that they had refrained from conducting internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious. Wrestling with his own paranoia about googling what comprised a carbon dioxide bomb after an ineffectual bombing at LAX, Peter Galison of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung outlined the issue for journalists working in the surveillance age: ‘the knowledge that I might be walking into a security word search had been enough to make me hesitate.’

The true impact of mass surveillance on media freedom can be felt in these moments of hesitation. With every pause, there will be something missed, something underreported, an opportunity to question lost. In the words of Philippe Val, former editor of Charlie Hebdo, ‘What threatens democracy the most? Silence.’

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