I have written before about how mass surveillance of the kind carried out by the NSA and GCHQ creates a chilling effect on free speech. When people feel that their actions are being watched, they tend to self-censor, as they feel uncomfortable or unable to freely express their thoughts and opinions.
Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of open and democratic dialogue. Without it, new ideas cannot be discussed and developed, and dissenting views are stifled.
A new study by Elizabeth Stoyscroft, an assistant professor at Wayne State University, confirms that in wake of Edwards Snowden’s mass spying revelations, more and more people are choosing to self-censor dissenting views,
“For the… majority of participants, being primed of government surveillance significantly reduced the likelihood of speaking out in hostile opinion climates… Theoretically, it adds a new layer of chilling effects to the spiral of silence.”
The Spiral of silence is well-established phenomenon in political science, in which individuals fear becoming isolated from society in general,
“This fear of isolation consequently leads to remaining silent instead of voicing opinions.”
This is also known as having a chilling effect.
The methodology used by Stoycroft involved building up a psychological profile of 255 participants based on their political beliefs and personality traits, of which a randomly selected subgroup was given subtle reminders about NSA spying before being asked to express their opinions through a series of questions about a fictional headline involving US airstrikes targeted at IS.
When compared with their psychological profiles, the study found that participants tended to self-censor ideas they felt did not conform to what they perceived as the majority view on the subject,
“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.”
Referring to these results, Stoycroft told The Washington Post that,
“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.”