Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden thought he was doing the world a public service by exposing the government’s indiscriminate mass surveillance programs. Public knowledge of these programs, however, may have a disconcerting side effect — those most likely to be put under surveillance refuse to criticize the government online.
The Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly study examined Facebook users’ behavior when controversial topics, such as the U.S. launching airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS), came across their news feeds.
Researchers presented 255 participants with a fictitious Facebook post discussing a hypothetical U.S. airstrike targeting ISIS. They were then asked whether the airstrike was a good or a bad decision. Additionally, about half of those participants were also shown a post that alluded to the government’s online surveillance programs.
The study found that politically active participants were more likely to express an opinion if they felt that a terrorist attack was imminent. Overall, people who perceived themselves as having an unpopular opinion were less likely to comment, share, like, or post, in response to news of a U.S. airstrike campaign.
The most startling finding, however, was that people who believed the government was collecting their online data refused to share their feelings even if the majority of comments supported their opinions.
“When individuals think they are being monitored and disapprove of such surveillance practices, they are equally as unlikely to voice opinions in friendly opinion climates as they are in hostile ones,” researchers concluded.
Speaking out is highest “when one is the majority” and staying quiet is strongest when someone believes their online activity is being monitored but thinks the government practice is justified.
One of the study’s lead researchers, Elizabeth Stoycheff, told the Washington Post that people dismiss online surveillance because they don’t have anything to hide.
“So many people I’ve talked with say they don’t care about online surveillance because they don’t break any laws and don’t have anything to hide. And I find these rationales deeply troubling,” said Stoycheff, who is an assistant professor at Wayne State University.
Those same individuals who don’t voice their opinions, she said, are “enabling a culture of self-censorship because it further disenfranchises minority groups.”
Knowing that people are less inclined to state their opinions on the government’s behavior is generally disturbing, but Stoycheff was right. Dismissing online surveillance as no big deal, or self-censoring, deletes the voices of those most likely to be victimized by government misconduct.
Racial and religious minorities in America are at an increased risk of being targeted by law enforcement. Surveillance programs tossed around by Republican presidential candidates advocate for illegal monitoring of Muslim communities.
People of color are notoriously vulnerable to police harassment and brutality, but are particularly at risk online. More than 70 percent of Blacks or Latinos online use Facebook, and are more likely to use Twitter and Instagram than their white counterparts, according to Pew Research. Those sites, particularly Twitter and Instagram, are often used to promote awareness for social movements such as Black Lives Matter, and have been monitored by law enforcement.
On top of online monitoring, minorities are disproportionately at risk of digital privacy violations through cellphone tracking and the physical confiscation of devices upon arrest or during travel because they are more likely to access the internet through mobile devices.
Despite the amplification of social issues affecting marginalized communities, the fact remains that online conversations have stayed homogeneous. Researchers have established that social media sites can easily become echo chambers that elevate like-minded opinions. On platforms like Facebook, that behavior is often a result of people not having a diverse group of friends, effectively shutting out those who have different perspectives and beliefs.
Without a diverse set of voices weighing in on everything from the presidential debate, government programs, and media coverage, it’s likely nothing will change.