Big Brother is watching you and he wants you to believe that if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.
This is a lie, of course, and as we move deeper into the era of state sponsored technological surveillance, we see more evidence that the loss of privacy and confidence in inter-personal communications is transforming the individual into a compliant, self-policing ward of the state.
In one of the first empirical scientific studies to provide concrete evidence of the ‘chilling effects’ that government surveillance has on internet users, Oxford University professor Jon Penney looked at Wikipedia search data and traffic patterns before and after the 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden regarding widespread NSA surveillance of the internet. The results demonstrated an immediate trend towards self-censorship, as traffic and searches for terms like ‘Al Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb,’ and ‘Taliban’ showed nearly instant and mentionable decline.
The changes were statistically significant enough to indicate that many people automatically alter their own behavior upon realizing that a punitive authoritarian organization is monitoring them for legitimate or perceived wrongdoings.
“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.” – Jon Penney
In 2013, the organization Pen America conducted a survey of writers in the United States showing that many were already self-censoring themselves in an increasingly oppressive atmosphere of government surveillance. The fear of being caught up in a dragnet of legal and financial problems was sufficient enough for many to change their tone and content, even though no direct physical threat existed.
“The results of this survey—the beginning of a broader investigation into the harms of surveillance—substantiate PEN’s concerns: writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” [Source]
Commenting on the effects of authoritarian governments which heavily surveil their citizens, Pen America also notes that, “historically, from writers and intellectuals in the Soviet Bloc, and contemporaneously from writers, thinkers, and artists in China, Iran, and elsewhere—aggressive surveillance regimes limit discourse and distort the flow of information and ideas.” This is without question the intended aim of such programs.
That study also included data which indicated how people curtail their online behavior and interactions with other people out of fear of being persecuted by the nanny state:
“Smaller percentages of those surveyed described already changing their day-to-day behavior: 28 percent said they had “curtailed or avoided activities on social media,” with another 12 percent saying they had seriously considered doing it; similar percentages said they had steered clear of certain topics in phone calls or email (24 percent had done so; 9 percent had seriously considered it).” [Source]
Furthermore, in a 2015 study by the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) examining how awareness of government surveillance affected people’s use of Google, the world’s most widely used internet search engine, researchers concluded that, “users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the US government.”
In general, people’s behavior also changes in ways more favorable to an authoritarian government when surveillance both online and in the real world is as ubiquitous as it already is in American society. The state draws power from a compliant, acquiescent, and self-policing public, and when mass surveillance is applied to the citizenry, with the predictable result of creating a more submissive and conformist citizenry.
This idea was effectively brought to life in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984, where the primary surveillance device of the individual was the telescreen, a digital device located in every home that could receive and transmit audio and video, giving individuals zero privacy in their own homes. The beauty of omnipotent surveillance such as this was that the government did not even have to actually be monitoring an individual, because the simple fact that they could be listening and watching was enough to frighten a person into voluntary compliance and self-censorship.
“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” – George Orwell, 1984
This principle is coming to fruition in our modern world in the form of the internet and social media. Couple this with the creation and publication of government watch lists of all flavors, where people can be arbitrarily restricted from travel, or worse, and we are marching headlong into a brave new world where freedom is tightly constricted not by law, but by a creeping ambiguous fear of what may happen to us if we step out of line. We are creating a society where people may have legally protected free speech, but they dare not use it.
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