Social media users don't like discussing Snowden and surveillance online

Filed Under: Featured, Privacy, Social networks

Silence. Image courtesy of ShutterstockLove him or hate him, Edward Snowden has had a profound effect on the way many people view their government, the internet and the topic of surveillance.

Snowden’s revelations about surveillance have also affected the way people discuss the topic of government snooping, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.

Pew Research polled 1,801 American adults, and found that people were far less likely to discuss the Snowden leaks online than in person.

Just 42% of those surveyed said they were willing to air their views or enter a discussion on Facebook or Twitter but 86% said they would be happy to discuss the NSA surveillance program in a face-to-face setting.

The researchers also discovered that people's willingness to talk about Snowden and surveillance was greatly affected by their perception of how their audience would react to their point of view.

The study revealed that workplace discussions were 3 times more likely to occur when it was believed that co-workers were like-minded. In a family setting, a conversation about surveillance was 1.9 times as likely if a consensus of opinion was anticipated and an open conversation with friends was 1.42 times as likely if they were thought to be in agreement.

The Pew Research Center examined other reasons why people may choose to stay quiet on the topic of surveillance and discovered that a low level of confidence in personal knowledge on the topic, strength of feelings and interest level were all key factors.

Given the wide range of factors that could affect a person’s willingness to discuss surveillance issues in a number of settings, the authors of the study concluded that their findings pointed to a 'spiral of silence' in which people who believe they hold a minority view will keep it to themselves for fear of social exclusion:

It might be the case that people do not want to disclose their minority views for fear of disappointing their friends, getting into fruitless arguments, or losing them entirely. Some people may prefer not to share their views on social media because their posts persist and can be found later - perhaps by prospective employers or others with high status. As to why the absence of agreement on social media platforms spills over into a spiral of silence in physical settings, we speculate that social media users may have witnessed those with minority opinions experiencing ostracism, ridicule or bullying online, and that this might increase the perceived risk of opinion sharing in other settings.

The topic of Edward Snowden, surveillance and the NSA is of course not the only example of like-minded people coming together to voice their opinions on a topic.

Earlier this month Vox’s Zack Beauchamp looked into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it was being reported and discussed, especially on social media.

Beauchamp discovered that the vast majority of tweets about the conflict came together in clusters that were largely either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian.

The two clusters almost exclusively kept discussions among themselves, possibly indicating that social media users on both sides of the conflict were getting their information from sources that held their own viewpoint.

What we can learn from these two studies is that like-minded people seem to stick together, and those with less-strong or vocal opinions tend to plant themselves firmly on the fence of silence.

Humans, by our nature, like to be accepted by our peers and associate with those who share our views. The self-confirming viewpoints of friends, family and associates reinforce and validate our own beliefs but that need for acceptance also acts as a type of social censorship.

The Pew researchers point out that the Snowden-NSA story is individual given its context, even though the survey took place in September 2013 - before a lot of the surveillance revelations had surfaced.

The context of the Snowden-NSA story may also have made it somewhat different from other kinds of public debates. At the time of this study, the material leaked by Edward Snowden related to NSA monitoring of communications dealt specifically with "meta-data" collected on people’s phone and internet communications. For a phone call, the meta-data collected by the NSA was described as including the duration of the call, when it happened, the numbers the call was between, but not a recording of the call. For email, meta-data would have included the sender and recipient’s email addresses and when it was sent, but not the subject or text of the email.

Given what we now know, the researchers admit things might be even more different:

In reaction to these additional revelations, people may have adjusted their use of social media and their willingness to discuss a range of topics, including public issues such as government surveillance.


Image of silence courtesy of Shutterstock.

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18 Responses to Social media users don't like discussing Snowden and surveillance online

  1. Ralph Haygood · 58 days ago

    I freely discuss Snowden and surveillance online, always including in my posts the cheery greeting "Hi spooks!"

    The wonderful thing about mass surveillance - if you're a despot - is the way it moves so many people to preemptively thought-police themselves.

    • Ivor Massey-Vaas · 57 days ago

      I think you are spot on in your estimation that the fear if something makes people police themselves and restrict their own activities and thoughts.

      • These are not the demographics you want. · 57 days ago

        This is what's known as the "chilling effect of surveillance on public discourse".

        personal knowledge on the topic: no more than the average news junkie
        strength of feeling: very high
        interest level: very high

        I'm not claiming any special insight into Snowden's preferences, but I interpret his statements to suggest that he'd voluntarily return to the States for trial if he had an iron-clad promise of a timely and completely open trial. I'd love to be able to sit down with coverage from the "liberal press" and the "right-wingnut press" and the fascist press and the libertarian press and find out what's really going on.

        Lance ==)----------------

  2. I'm happy to discuss anything you want. Religion. Politics. NSA Surveillance. Dogs. What would you like to discuss?

    • Darren · 57 days ago

      I'd like to discuss with you the impact NSA surveillance has had on the religious and political views of dogs and whether this is to be a concern or not.

  3. Ivor Massey-Vaas · 57 days ago

    I made a 'tongue in cheek' comment on Facebook about a false flag attack being planned by an unnamed current prime-minister of an unnamed island group close to France; the post was mysteriously deleted within three minutes (not by the page owner), and twenty minutes later there was an attempted browser hijack on my computer. There is something very, very worrying going on out there in the scary world beyond (but loosely connected to) what is happening to all of those poor people in Syria, Iraq and other hell-holes. The browser hijack could be a coincidence of course.

  4. Gavin · 57 days ago

    Psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of "conformity experiments" in the 1950s, specifically looking at this phenomenon. Essentially what he found was exactly as reported in this article. People will cluster with prevailing wisdom even to the point of flipping their views in order to conform in certain settings. It's fascinating stuff, and--bringing this round to security--goes a long way towards explaining why saying "no" to a social engineering attack is so hard.

  5. Problem with coverage of Snowden is the rather silly suggestion that NSA/GCHQ are sat there in fort meade or cheltenham reading (example) Joe public's texties to their mates about whether to meet up at 8.00pm by the clock tower or 8.15 outside the bar.

    CAN they read those texts? I certainly hope so. We are in a big mess if agencies getting so much tax payers money can't intercept a simple SMS.

    DO they read those texts? Obviously not. We can see - time and time again - that they don't have the resources to access/analyse/act on every communication by real deal killers - let alone the trivia of ordinary people.

    (Sorry to all the people posting replies on this blog - but the NSA probably isn't interested in your internet posts either.)

    I'm not sure this is all Snowden - a lot of it how the media (particularly the Guardian newspaper in the UK) like to sensationalise in order to generate sales/clicks.

    • I haven't seen anyone actually suggest that - I have seen it used a lot as a straw man by people dismissing concerns about government surveillance though.

      • Where do you see the real life NSA surveillance, for ordinary people?

        I think we agree they didn't read the last iMessage I sent (telling my wife I was on way home from work)

        What about this blog? Why would the NSA/GCHQ allocate resources to monitor what I post on here? Or what I last searched for on google?

        I can genuinely think hard and not come up with a single thing where the NSA would divert a single man hour to read anything I do.

        Over here, GCHQ clearly don't have the resources to monitor all the alleged jihadists they want to monitor. Repeatedly, emails, SMS etc turn up after the event, because they can't possibly read all the material they have from suspected terrorists, their contacts and their contact's contacts. The idea that they are diverting personnel to monitor me is not credible.

    • Magyver · 57 days ago

      Et tu "John Smith"? While I suspect the Brits in MI5 & MI6 don't have time for foolishness you seriously underestimate the culture of spying across the pond.

  6. Anonymous · 57 days ago

    Bullfrog. It's not about how "their audience would react to their point of view."

    The Pew Research Center better polish up on their research skills. The reason people don't want to talk about it online is because of the shameless spying going on in social media by the jackbooted thugs of both our governments.

    They're paranoid to speak openly lest they be targeted as an "enemy of the state", plain and simple.

  7. I'm being honest about saying I can't see NSA/GCHQ resources being used to read my emails about ordering a kindle book on amazon.

    But here's a real debate ..

    In the 1980s the british miners union had a national strike, nearly brought the country to a halt. It's generally accepted that the security services spied on the union to help make the strike ineffective. Government/MI5 might say this was a Moscow oriented union trying to bring down a government - a legitimate target. Others might say it was an excessive use of state power on a legitimate workers union.

    Were they listening to my phone or my parent's phone? No. Were they listening to the miner's leaders? Yes.

    Governments have the capability to spy. I think the debate needs to be about the limits of who they are spying on - not silly distortions about that capability being used on ordinary people when it isn't.

    • What the government did in the 1980s was limited by what was possible in the 1980s.

      The capabilities revealed by Snowden aren't about one-on-one monitoring, it's not The Wire with one man listening to another man's phone, it's one man Googling every call on every phone.

      Imagine that at the start of the miners strike that one MI5 agent were able to get a list of union members names and then search through a vast database that included every SMS and email sent and every word of every web page used by every single miner or member of a miner's family or friend of a member of a miner's family for at least the last 30 days (and longer from then on.)

      That agent might look for evidence to discredit or embarrass the miners' leaders. They might search the emails for the word 'password' to see if there's anything interesting that turns up. They might use algorithms of the kind commercial companies use on twitter data to measure sentiment - is their resolve weakening? Who are the weak links? Is anyone having marital trouble or trouble with the bank? What are the top flying picket targets? Who are the key individuals doing the most communication, holding the miners communities together?

      It's not about monitoring a phone because you have a use for information about that person now, it's about storing all phone calls in case you have use for that information in future.

      • Mark - I accept the change in technology, particularly in the scale. Back in the 80s, many ordinary folk didn't even have a landline phone.

        My point is more about intention rather than capability.

        I think the unhelpful part of the current the NSA panic is not the discussion of capability it's the suggestion that they have the intention to use the capabilities you describe on joe public - when in reality they are using them on (example) a guy who hacked the head off a reporter.

        It's like saying my governments possession of a UAV capability means I need to worry about a hellfire missile coming through my roof. It doesn't help the debate.

        The UK miners strike is long enough ago the records are coming out. MI5 declined to get involved in several ordinary labour disputes & political squabbles. They used their capabilities against the miners because they saw a line being crossed when a union tried trash the whole country to bring down an elected government, not get a pay raise. (The same union did bring down a government in the 70s)

        That strike gives a good idea of capability v intent and also where the security services drew the line. Personally I think the debate needs to be about where that line is drawn, not distortions that claim every capability is being used against ordinary people.

        Realistic current examples: if those capabilities should NOT be used on peaceful protesters, should they be used on a violent animal rights group? What about a neo-nazi group who stir up attacks on gays? How about an environmental group which launches protests which cost £millions to police? Where's the line?

        • From the comments I read people are mostly concerned about capability rather than intention, and that's where I sit.

          For example: if I were an American citizen I would be very worried about the billions of dollars of ex-military hardware that has been handed on to US police forces since 9/11. Not because I dislike the police and not because I have an expectation that they will abuse their power - simply because it is a huge increase in the amount of power they have and therefore a huge 'gearing' effect on the risk to me.

          PRISM, XKeyscore etc are an *extraordinary* capability with huge potential risks and no meaningful oversight. Just *storing* all that data in one place, never mind actually giving fallible human beings access to it, creates an enormous increase in risk.

          • I understand what you are saying, but looking at capability without intention can lead to distortions.

            Our nearest neighbouring country is France. They have a bigger army than us, a navy that has aircraft carriers that actually work and lots of nuclear weapons. If I didn't think about intention as well as capability I'd loose sleep at nights over the French.

            Looking at capability but not intention is resulting in people panicking about the NSA, but ignoring Google or Facebook - which (for the average person) is exactly the opposite way around in terms of who is actually spying on us.

            • I understand your point but I can use your France analogy to illustrate the problem with government surveillance.

              Not worrying about France attacking us does not stem from us simply listening to French assurances about their intention.

              Our understanding of their intention is a visceral, deeply felt understanding built up carefully during the post-Napoleonic period through decades of diplomatic, military and intelligence cooperation, similar outlooks, shared goals, interdependence and having roughly evenly matched military capabilities.

              We are very familiar with France, its motivations and its capabilities and they're on show for all to see.

              It is symmetric a partnership of trust and of equals.

              Our relationship with France would be more like the relationship with government surveillance if we thought that they had little or no military capability and then, after years of secretly building it to its current strength, its existence was revealed only when a French civil servant defected with thousands of military documents.

              Although they had no intention of revealing its existence they insist that their enormous, recently secret, military machine that is 20 miles away is for fighting other people, not us.

              Their intention in both scenarios is superficially the same but our response to that intention would be markedly different - indeed you might even lose sleep.

              Regarding your last point I actually agree, sort of. As much as I think that government surveillance is a risk I think it's one with potentially devastating consequences but a low probability of affecting me. Google, Facebook and their ilk are more likely to affect me and although their capability is lower it's high enough to be potentially very dangerous.

              I'd throw in a 3rd group too - everyone (what Alvin Toffler referred to as Little Brother.) The democratisation of surveillance and the echo chamber of social media mean that individuals and ad-hoc groups can have devastating consequences on individual's lives (revenge porn is an example of this).

              I write about that in this article: http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2014/06/06/snowden-one-year-on-and-its-still-not-1984/

              I have enjoyed our discussion - thanks for taking the time to reply so thoughtfully.

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About the author

Lee Munson is the founder of Security FAQs, a social media manager with BH Consulting and a blogger with a huge passion for information security.