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NSA-style spying has chilling effect on free speech

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

April 8, 2016

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 study

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.

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