Mass Surveillance Silences Minority Opinions

Research paper: Elizabeth Stoycheff, "Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook's Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring":

Abstract: Since Edward Snowden exposed the National Security Agency's use of controversial online surveillance programs in 2013, there has been widespread speculation about the potentially deleterious effects of online government monitoring. This study explores how perceptions and justification of surveillance practices may create a chilling effect on democratic discourse by stifling the expression of minority political views. Using a spiral of silence theoretical framework, knowing one is subject to surveillance and accepting such surveillance as necessary act as moderating agents in the relationship between one's perceived climate of opinion and willingness to voice opinions online. Theoretical and normative implications are discussed.

No surprise, and something I wrote about in Data and Goliath:

Across the US, states are on the verge of reversing decades-old laws about homosexual relationships and marijuana use. If the old laws could have been perfectly enforced through surveillance, society would never have reached the point where the majority of citizens thought those things were okay. There has to be a period where they are still illegal yet increasingly tolerated, so that people can look around and say, "You know, that wasn't so bad." Yes, the process takes decades, but it's a process that can't happen without lawbreaking. Frank Zappa said something similar in 1971: "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible."

The perfect enforcement that comes with ubiquitous government surveillance chills this process. We need imperfect security­ -- systems that free people to try new things, much the way off-the-record brainstorming sessions loosen inhibitions and foster creativity. If we don't have that, we can't slowly move from a thing's being illegal and not okay, to illegal and not sure, to illegal and probably okay, and finally to legal.

This is an important point. Freedoms we now take for granted were often at one time viewed as threatening or even criminal by the past power structure. Those changes might never have happened if the authorities had been able to achieve social control through surveillance.

This is one of the main reasons all of us should care about the emerging architecture of surveillance, even if we are not personally chilled by its existence. We suffer the effects because people around us will be less likely to proclaim new political or social ideas, or act out of the ordinary. If J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. had been successful in silencing him, it would have affected far more people than King and his family.

Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (4/6): News article.

Posted on March 29, 2016 at 12:58 PM • 31 Comments


HooverMarch 29, 2016 2:56 PM

Yes, society does benefit from some types of lawbreaking, and crypto can help. But that is a tough argument to make to law makers and law enforcers.

ThomasMarch 29, 2016 3:06 PM

"If we don't have that, we can't slowly move from a thing's being illegal and not okay, to illegal and not sure, to illegal and probably okay, and finally to legal."

The opposite is also true.
Legal things (like slavery, abuse in marriage and child labour used to be) are less likely to be criticised.

The status quo is what got those presently in power there. They have no interest in rocking the boat, or letting anyone else do it.

Anything that stifles discussion, dissent and disruption is doubleplusgood.

bcsMarch 29, 2016 3:38 PM

There is an inevitable consequence of it being easier for something that is currently legal to become illegal, than for something that is currently illegal to become legal: more and more thing become illegal. Eventually that leads to a dangerously authoritarian society.

lawrenceMarch 29, 2016 5:20 PM

````` "the emerging architecture of surveillance"

...this ain't no "emerging technology" --- it's in its final stages.

What personal information of yours remains that the government can't routinely get now, if it chooses (??) .

How utterly naive to assume the citizenry now controls the law and its evolution...and that there could be some danger of citizens losing control of their government. That ship sailed long,long ago.

The objective of government mass surveillance is ALWAYS mass control of the populace. Grade school notions of civics, law and government have absolutely no relevance to the mature surveillance state.
Enjoy the Gulag.

John SmithMarch 29, 2016 8:24 PM

A first-hand example of this chilling effect:

Sitting in an airport cafe, with friends before my flight, I say the word "bomb" in conversation, in an appropriate context.

Simultaneously, as if synchronized by clockwork, my friends worriedly look around me and urge me to keep my voice down, then try to change the topic.

Me: What are you doing? This is a free country. What's wrong with you?

Friends stay silent. Nervous glances all round, then eyes down. More silence.

Adam SmithMarch 29, 2016 10:11 PM

@John Smith:

I'm sorry John but they aren't your friends if that is how they act.

tyrMarch 30, 2016 12:29 AM

I'm not sure that the builders have contemplated what
a total surveillance state will do to human methods of
a whole number of their carefully crafted institutions.
Police are already chafing because they and their methods
are being examined in and by the public. No politician
wants his crooked favour tradings on the YouTube viral
video of the day. Neither military bigwigs or spooks
want the public asking ugly questions about what they
spent the trillions of tax dollars on. That is the
real nature of total surveillance it sweeps innocent
and guilty both into its embrace and LEO and politicos
have a lot more to lose from it than those it wants
to suppress.

P/KMarch 30, 2016 1:04 AM

Well yes, that sounds nice "Mass Surveillance Silences Minority Opinions", but before being scared by "mass surveillance", one first has to know that such monitoring exists and happens.

Western governments however did everything to actually hide their surveillance efforts, so their citizens could not know that this happened (okay, they could suspect something, but then other means of social control, by family, friends, company, police, etc is likely to be much stronger).

That many people now fear the "mass surveillance" by the NSA is only because Snowden revealed various activities and programs and spread the fear that everyone could be targeted, monitored and eavesdropped upon.

So it's actually Snowden and his comrades in the press that made people being more careful to express any suspicious opinions...

65535March 30, 2016 2:03 AM

@ John Smith

“A first-hand example of this chilling effect: Sitting in an airport cafe, with friends before my flight, I say the word "bomb" in conversation, in an appropriate context.”
That is chilling.

Even more chilling would be a 50% falling Facebook’s stock price. That would not only chill minorities but wealthy stock holders and traders and put a dent in the NASDAQ.

The real test is Money. When Facebook's [FB NASDAQ] stock price falls by 50% a lot of people will lose money. That is a real Pain In the Wallet.

Although, the fall of Facebook’s stocks price is the final indicator it actually can be falling behind the scenes when owners of FB stock go short against the box [a neutral position or a non-ownership position] or take a hedge position in one of the many financial instruments i.e., options, futures on options, baskets of tech stocks heavy laden with FB type stocks and so on.

It’s possible that FB stock is in a “short squeeze” position and is being kept artificially high by short sellers of the stock panicking and selling in a rising market - or being forced to liquidate short positions because of lack of shares to sell short. Only time will tell.

When it comes to money people notice - especially when they are losing money!

Who?March 30, 2016 4:56 AM

I do not think it is true that nearly 60% of Americans believe that monitoring of the general population is unacceptable. People just does not care about privacy. My father is eighty years old and he does not care about this matter either.

The only reason to the silence about mass surveillance is that privacy has no value to people.

Of course there are a few exceptions. There are people that give a high value to privacy, like us. But accept it, we are the exception.

FPMarch 30, 2016 8:41 AM

If pervasive surveillance had existed 240 years ago, the Queen would have disposed of those troublesome founding fathers with a prompt missile strike.

paulMarch 30, 2016 8:48 AM

So this is the cultural equivalent of the long-known phenomenon that rabid cost accounting destroys innovation in businesses? It seems almost by definition that systems need slop. Or complete, perfect specifications and a completely known, predictably-changing environment.

Speaking of predictability, random reinforcement is notorious for being best at inculcating long-lasting conditioned behaviors. So somewhat paradoxically, if the mass-surveillance state only stomps on people now and then, it may actually be more effective at creating an atmosphere of paranoia and conformity. If everything that's being noted as a possible infraction gets fed back to the subjects of surveillance, then they get a better sense of where the limits are. But if enforcement is sporadic people have to make up their own ideas of where the limits might be in the worst case.

Surveillance RageMarch 30, 2016 9:53 AM

The study also points out there is also a vocal minority who refuses to be silenced (like the Schneier crowd) and a certain other group that withdraws from technology completely. This latter group probably includes hardened criminals who certainly can maintain their anonymity if they are willing to take steps most wouldn't e.g. abandon cell phones completely, cease communicating over the internet, and meet in private away from all modern infrastructure. This is why the NSA et al. are "dreaming the impossible dream" of total control and power.

It is also a lie that nobody cares about privacy anymore. Simple (Greenwald) test:

1. Ask "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" deep thinkers for all passwords - social media, email, messaging etc.
2. Inform them you will be publishing all material to the public internet, since they are fearless after all
3. Watch said philosophers suddenly change their tune, since it is evident that social animals need a private sphere. Everyone does actually have something to hide - infidelity, sexual identity, mental illness, drug use/alcoholism, personal doubts about relationships/work colleagues etc.

The introspective, group-think adherents who work for shadow government agencies may not like exposure of their transparent agenda and history of anti-democratic activities, but they can't erase their dirty laundry from the hive mind. Nor can they eliminate free thinkers, no matter the grotesque size of their panspectron.

Assuming they even achieve full spectrum analysis they desire, resistance will continue in a manner analogous to prison riots in supermax, ego survival in gulags etc. Ironically, the spooks enslave themselves - becoming both both prison guards and detainees simultaneously. Their own work environment is destroyed with psychological pressures as the homeland industry increasingly goes full paranoid retard in sniffing out the next potential Edward Snowden.

Further analysis is needed to clearly articulate the NSA manifesto, pointing out and drawing links between the obvious:

- surveillance as a means of total population control;
- a never ending war on terror as a smokescreen for accelerated funding;
- an untouchables status being granted to rogue spy agencies and their henchmen;
- sale of spy services to the highest bidders e.g. banks and their cronies to crush enemies who might bring them to heel;
- surveillance to confer trade/economic advantages to the financial and political elite;
- surveillance to enrich cronies e.g. insider trading;
- surveillance to steal intellectual property wholesale;
- enabling parallel construction and the construction of a full police state;
- destruction of political opposition and vocal minorities and their leaders;
- destroying remnants of liberal democracy in favor of the henchman's preferred dystopian state;
- ultimate means of blackmail e.g. government officials
- character assassination e.g. fabricating crimes via digital means;
- the ultimate scaling up of former programs in the new paradigm - MINARETTE at NSA, COINTELPRO at FBI and CHAOS at CIA;
- privatization of spy functions to 'cyber-consulting groups';
- enriching spy hacks via easy financial gains that are possible in the Borg matrix;
- pointing to ongoing failures of the system as the raison d'être for its continual enlargement;
- entrapment as a principal method of business;
- disguising the imperial presidency/dictatorship and hostile bureaucracy as servants of the people;
- the critical private-public partnership that enables the panopticon i.e. spook systems intersect with surveillance capitalists like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo etc who are simply filthy collaborators who should be drawn and quartered;
- the global race to complete prison planet with 5-eyes, 9-eyes and other partners as a critical precursor to eventual one-world government status molded in their image;
- etc.

I'm sure the spook plants here won't take umbrage with this train of protected 1st amendment thought - we will never be branded as their chattel, no matter how much they wish it.

Oh, and greetings to Skeptical ------------>

........('(...´...´.... ¯~/'...')
..........''...\.......... _.·´

CallMeLateForSupperMarch 30, 2016 10:39 AM

Personal example of chilled speech, by @John Smith.


The number of my non-U.S. email correspondents can be counted on one hand, and each of us uses strong encryption + air-gapped 'puters..... because what we discuss is *our* business and the pat-head-while-rubbing-tummy process is the pro-active way to keep it our business.

I had not sent clear text to a foreign address for some years.... until recently. I relapsed, clumsily, by way of emailing a Brit (Strike 1) who is currently in southern Egypt (Strike 2) and closed with "Give kind regards to Isis.", meaning the ancient Egyptian goddess whose temple is near there. A few minutes later I picked up a news article and stopped dead at the word "ISIS". (Strike 3)

Oh c__p! What if he thinks I meant "Say hi to terrorists"?! Out of context of the conversation, yeah, but people misunderstand stuff all the time. Worse, I had written a known "selector" in a clear-text email.

My nerves didn't settle until the next day. By then I had made up my mind that possibly being misunderstood by my correspondent was more objectionable to me than was having tagged my mail for collection and eternal storage in Utah.

Nevertheless, I won't change my usual email modus anytime soon.

JG4March 30, 2016 11:15 AM

The purpose of the surveillance is multifaceted and this isn't the first time that it has been used for political control. The forever wars are about money and power. It has been about money and power since long before J. Edgar started cointelpro and prancing around in women's underwear.

They ADMIT It's A Lie
You really ought to read this one folks......
And he told me an amazing thing. I started asking him some earnest, wonky policy questions and he waved them away.
He said, "Can we cut the B.S.? Can I just tell you what this was all about?" The Nixon campaign in '68 and the Nixon White House had two enemies: black people and the anti-war left. He said, and we knew that if we could associate heroin with black people and marijuana with the hippies, we could project the police into those communities, arrest their leaders, break up their meetings and most of all, demonize them night after night on the evening news. And he looked me in the eyes and said, "Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

Chill thisMarch 30, 2016 12:56 PM

Here are CIA's cutouts for the next domestic terror attack in the US. Victor Valley is the new Elohim City. Remember these guys.

As always, FBI has a bunch of bought or compromised provocateurs provoking each other to a frenzy. Invoking sources and methods exceptions, CIA will call off domestic investigations on the foreign spies among them. CIA will choose a couple sad sacks to incite or frame and next thing you know, Kaboom! Then we get more surveillance and repression shoved up our butts under pretext of this new armed state attack on the US civilian population.

CIA doesn't bother to hide it anymore. It's like Zappa said, when the time comes they just take away the stage set and show you the brick wall. They think their grip on the subject population is secure.

Porgie TirebiterMarch 30, 2016 1:31 PM

No, I think Zappa said something like, "When the time comes, you won't be able to tell the difference between the nightly news and a Firesign Theatre album."

Trust me, man, we're already THIS CLOSE....

DanMarch 30, 2016 4:03 PM

Until we make mass surveillance illegal, we should try to make it as useless as possible. The best way of doing this is to move to end-to-end encryption with forward security. We should also try to generate as much absolutely useless data (that still appears useful) as we can to massively grow the "haystacks" with "hay". I favor the DOS attack for DEADDROP/STRONGBOX mentioned at "" (I gave up trying to make that a link).

"We also found that it was possible to exhaust the space on the Secure Viewing Station by uploading a custom zip file of 1MB that when uploaded to DeadDrop and subsequently unzipped on the Secure Viewing Station, would generate files with total space of 1TB. The zip file was designed and handcrafted so that that even if one was to preview the contents of the zip file, it would lie about the size of the unzipped contents. We believe that this attack is of independent interest as it goes beyond, to our knowledge, previous compression attacks, such as the infamous file which requires the unzip program to be run with special, recursive flags -- our attack has not such requirements."

This seems like an excellent way to reduce the resources of the feds in a way that doesn't hurt the person who sends it nearly as much.

Dirk PraetMarch 30, 2016 7:04 PM

@ CallMeLateForSupper, @ FP

Queen George?

We know he was a bit of a fruitcake, suspected of suffering from porphyria or arsenic poisoning, but there are no reports of him also being a crossdresser. That's more of an FBI leadership thing.

xianMarch 31, 2016 3:21 AM


I suspect grade school notions of civics law and government do have relevance in the mature surveillance state. Changes aren't permanent, change is. Despots come and go, philosophy and ideas seem to have survived them (pretty well? better than you suggest?)

Ayn Rand would suggest that the mature surveillance state is something like a business whose expenditures outstrip its revenues. It might have inherited or looted some vast wealth created by others, but it will pretty much inevitably feed on itself to the point of its own destruction. I'm not saying the final chapter has been written, but the story of the U.S.S.R. is somewhat heartening in this regard. Of course the U.S. was a lesser of evils by comparison, but I don't think Rand was *completely* off the mark as to the trajectories, though I think she was off the mark in an overreactionary sort of way.

It's Inevitable Mister AndersonMarch 31, 2016 3:29 AM


That many people now fear the "mass surveillance" by the NSA is only because Snowden revealed various activities and programs and spread the fear that everyone could be targeted, monitored and eavesdropped upon.

Snowden was (a result of) the straw that broke the camels back. There was such a flood of secrets, the dam was going to burst. Enough people knew. Enough people suspected. More were waking up to the inexplicable contradictions becoming more and more apparent in public policies and culture.

Pocket BazookaMarch 31, 2016 3:33 AM


FB is in the too-big-to-fail class along with Google. Move on. And it's East Coast, something important to some people apparently.

Aristocracy of ParasitesMarch 31, 2016 3:39 AM


You speak of the surveillance state as if it's primarily about control, rather than exploitation. No need to let the surveillees know they are being surveilled if what you really care about is getting an overall competitive advantage in society at their expense.

Parallel Construction Is Pure GeniusMarch 31, 2016 5:16 AM


Thanks for bringing up parallel construction. I imagine it to be a bell-weather somewhat like Donald Trump. I.e. we can be quite confident we are still 'in the woods' so long as Donald Trump is a serious contender for POTUS, and so long as 'parallel construction' hasn't gone the way of institutionalized slavery.

Peeping Through A Megapixel DarklyMarch 31, 2016 5:20 AM


Good WarOnDrugs stuff. The WarOnMasturbation is something I'm sadly old enough to remember. A lot of wolves out and about. Can you imagine what historical popes would have done with peepholes into everyone's captain kirk communicators? Crazy fracking world eh?

Deconfliction PrismMarch 31, 2016 5:23 AM


you seem to have unspoken doublepluswell the word 'deconfliction' that may have something to do with Obama's public comments about foreign policy, but also has something to do with the NSA and Snowden that has apparently not drawn very much journalistic interest. Oddly. Or not, given the overall theme of this discussion.

Opinion MutedApril 1, 2016 12:06 AM

Mass Surveillance Silences Minority Opinions ?
Whats the minority part got to do with it. Doesnt it just "Silence Opinion"
Especially opinion around political and social issues, or participating in protest around these.

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