The Null Device

The chilling effect of (perceived) mass surveillance

A new study (PDF) has shown that revelations on the extent of mass surveillance has created a chilling effect on unpopular opinions, as people with such opinions self-censor their expression to avoid the unsympathetic eye of an omniscient, automated bureaucracy:
For the remainder—and majority—of participants, being primed of government surveillance significantly reduced the likelihood of speaking out in hostile opinion climates. These findings introduce important theoretical and normative consequences. Theoretically, it adds a new layer of chilling effects to the spiral of silence. This is the first study to provide empirical evidence that the government’s online surveillance programs may threaten the disclosure of minority views and contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion. Noelle-Neumann (1974) and the scholars who have followed her have relied on an individual’s fear of social isolation as the underlying mechanism to explain silencing effects. But the results from this study suggest there may be an additional mechanism that contributes to this process: one’s fear of isolation from authority or government. Fear of isolation, as traditionally measured, taps an individual’s concern of being alienated from other members of society, but does not address fear of alienation or prosecution from the government. Csikszentmihalyi (1991) argues that social isolation is a minimal concern compared to material sanctions that government is capable of enacting, like losing one’s job or instigating legal consequences. Further research is needed to explore other potential theoretical mechanisms for why individuals fail to disclose minority views now that perceived surveillance has been identified as a moderating agent.
Which is all pretty grim news, if one believes in democracy and civil society. A system of enforcing the status quo with the illusion of being sufficiently efficient to render resistance not only useless but probably punishable enough that most well-adjusted individuals will steer clear of it can only suppress the sorts of protest and inquiry that have historically moved progress forward. Had the authorities had this sort of capability at the time of, say, Martin Luther King or the suffragette movement, would enough ordinary people, with jobs and families to support and the opinions of their neighbours to worry about, have risked supporting these dangerous subversives, rather than keeping their heads down and hoping to stay out of it? Of course, for those depending on a manageable democracy and a stable status quo, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

There is one sector of society which seems to be immune to this chilling effect; unfortunately for society, that sector is, predictably, sociopathic jerks, like the ones who fill the hate forums that a handful of trolls succeeded in directing Microsoft's experimental hip-millennial chatbot Tay to, turning it instantly into a neo-Nazi. The sorts of people already known online as sadistic griefers for whom racial epithets are almost punctuation are not going to be deterred by the prospect of being denied employment because of the huge swastikas self-tattooed crudely on their metaphorical foreheads.

So, in the age of mass surveillance (both by the security state in the age of the Long Siege, and increasingly leaking from the secretive spooks to local cops and minor government officials, and by their free-market equivalents: free data-aggregating social networks, online advertising networks and credit rating agencies), we may be facing a psychological retreat from modernity towards the mediaeval mindset; only instead of the omniscient God and His recording angels seeing every sinful thought in our fallible souls and recording it for the final judgment, it is the temporal powers with their intercepts and algorithms, and the judgment is potentially a lot closer. Most sinners will hope that, if they keep their heads down, they can squeeze through purgatory relatively quickly, while a hard core who know they are already damned will raise hell.

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