U.S. Government Surveillance Breeds Meekness, Fear and Self-Censorship [Old News]

New Study Shows Mass Surveillance Breeds Meekness, Fear and Self-Censorship by Glenn Greenwald.

From the post:

A newly published study from Oxford’s Jon Penney provides empirical evidence for a key argument long made by privacy advocates: that the mere existence of a surveillance state breeds fear and conformity and stifles free expression. Reporting on the study, the Washington Post this morning described this phenomenon: “If we think that authorities are watching our online actions, we might stop visiting certain websites or not say certain things just to avoid seeming suspicious.”

The new study documents how, in the wake of the 2013 Snowden revelations (of which 87% of Americans were aware), there was “a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al-Qaeda,’ “car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.’” People were afraid to read articles about those topics because of fear that doing so would bring them under a cloud of suspicion. The dangers of that dynamic were expressed well by Penney: “If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.”

As the Post explains, several other studies have also demonstrated how mass surveillance crushes free expression and free thought. A 2015 study examined Google search data and demonstrated that, post-Snowden, “users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the US government” and that these “results suggest that there is a chilling effect on search behavior from government surveillance on the Internet.”

While I applaud Greenwald and others who are trying to expose the systematic dismantling of civil liberties in the United States, at least as enjoyed by the privileged, the breeding of meekness, fear and self-censorship is hardly new.

Meekness, fear and self-censorship are especially not new to the non-privileged.

Civil Rights:

Many young activists of the 1960s saw their efforts as a new departure and themselves as a unique generation, not as actors with much to learn from an earlier, labor-infused civil rights tradition. Persecution, censorship, and self-censorship reinforced that generational divide by sidelining independent black radicals, thus whitening the memory and historiography of the Left and leaving later generations with an understanding of black politics that dichotomizes nationalism and integrationism.

The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, at page 1253.


Those who might object to a policy that is being defended on the grounds that it is protecting threats to the American community may remain silent rather than risk isolation. Arguably, this was the greatest long-term consequence of McCartyism. No politician thereafter could be seen to be soft on Communism, so that America could slide, almost by consensus, into a war against Vietnamese communists without rigorous criticism of successive administrations’ policies ever being mounted. Self-censoring of political and social debate among politicians and others can act to counter the positive effects of the country’s legal rights of expression.

Political Conflict in American by Alan Ware, pages 63-64.

The breeding of meekness, fear and self-censorship has long been a tradition in the United States. A tradition far older than the Internet.

A tradition that was enforced by fear of loss of employment, social isolation, loss of business.

You may recall in Driving Miss Daisy when her son (Boolie) worries about not getting invited to business meetings if he openly support Dr. Martin Luther King. You may mock Boolie now but that was a day to day reality. Still is, most places.

How to respond?

Supporting Wikileaks, Greenwald and other journalists is a start towards resisting surveillance, but don’t take it as a given that journalists will be able to preserve free expression for all of us.

As a matter of fact, journalists have been shown to be as reticent as the non-privileged:

Even the New York Times, the most aggressive news organization throughout the year of investigations, proved receptive to government pleas for secrecy. The Times refused to publicize President Ford’s unintentional disclosure of assassination plots. It joined many other papers in suppressing the Glomar Explorer story and led the editorial attacks on the Pike committee and on Schorr. The real question, as Tom Wicker wrote in 1978, is not “whether the press had lacked aggressiveness in challenging the national-security mystique, but why?” Why, indeed, did most journalists decide to defer to the administration instead of pursuing sensational stories?

Challenging the Secret Government by Kathryn S. Olmsted, at page 183.

You may have noticed the lack of national press organs in the United States challenging the largely fictional “war on terrorism.” There is the odd piece, You’re more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist by Andrew Shaver, but those are easily missed in the maelstrom of unquestioning coverage of any government press release on terrorism.

My suggestion? Don’t be meek, fearful or self-censor. Easier said than done but every instance of meekness, fearfulness or self-censorship, is another step towards the docile population desired by governments and others.

Let’s disappoint them together.

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