New Study Shows Mass Government Surveillance Silences Unpopular Opinions

We do censor ourselves online if we know we are being monitored

Preface by Pam Barker | TLB staff writer

Reporting on a recent study published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly by Elizabeth Stoycheff, Joe Jankowski is disturbed by the findings: when we know we are being monitored online, we are more likely to suppress views which deviate from what is deemed acceptable.  So where does that leave freedom of expression when we are being constantly watched?

This finding is not immediately obvious.

There are two theories in play, which predict – in opposite ways – how we will respond in communicative situations.

The first, popular in communications research since the 1970s, called the ‘spiral of silence’ theory, claims that we’re generally motivated by a fear of social isolation and consequently tailor our beliefs to fit into the group. This obviously runs the risk of minority views being voluntarily quashed.

However, it would seem that the internet and other forms of social media constitute a place where dissenting, minority or unpopular views can and do get freely expressed given the sheer volume of people communicating. According to this theory, we feel more able to express dissenting views because our social ties with a multiplicity of others are very weak or almost non-existent. This second theory of how we view and use digital communication tools obviously contradicts the spiral of silence theory.


Stoycheff’s study depressingly supports the first theory, as do other recent studies.  In fact, in Stoycheff’s study those who self-censored themselves the most were those whose psychological profiles indicate they were more likely to freely express themselves, and even included those who said they agreed with government surveillance claiming they had ‘nothing to hide’.

As Jankowski observes, this just enhances the slippery slope leading us down into tyranny.

Enjoy Joe Jankowski’s article below. I also recommend Karen Turner’s article on the same study in the Washington Post.


By Joseph Jankowski

A new study has found that the knowledge of widespread government surveillance causes people to self-censor dissenting opinions online.

The study, published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, studied the effects on the speech of its subjects after they had been reminded of government surveillance.

Frighteningly, the majority of participants reacted by suppressing opinions that they perceived to be unpopular.

From the Washington Post:

The “spiral of silence” is a well-researched phenomenon in which people suppress unpopular opinions to fit in and avoid social isolation. It has been looked at in the context of social media and the echo-chamber effect, in which we tailor our opinions to fit the online activity of our Facebook and Twitter friends. But this study adds a new layer by explicitly examining how government surveillance affects self-censorship.


Participants in the study were first surveyed about their political beliefs, personality traits and online activity, to create a psychological profile for each person. A random sample group was then subtly reminded of government surveillance, followed by everyone in the study being shown a neutral, fictional headline stating that U.S. airstrikes had targeted the Islamic State in Iraq. Subjects were then asked a series of questions about their attitudes toward the hypothetical news event, such as how they think most Americans would feel about it and whether they would publicly voice their opinion on the topic. The majority of those primed with surveillance information were less likely to speak out about their more nonconformist ideas, including those assessed as less likely to self-censor based on their psychological profile.

Elizabeth Stoycheff, lead researcher of the study, finds the results very disturbing.

“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,” she told the Washington Post.

According to Stoycheff, it is those who hold the “nothing to hide” belief that are most likely to self-censor.

“The fact that the ‘nothing to hide’ individuals experience a significant chilling effect speaks to how online privacy is much bigger than the mere lawfulness of one’s actions. It’s about a fundamental human right to have control over one’s self-presentation and image, in private, and now, in search histories and metadata,” Stoycheff said.

“It concerns me that surveillance seems to be enabling a culture of self-censorship because it further disenfranchises minority groups. And it is difficult to protect and extend the rights of these vulnerable populations when their voices aren’t part of the discussion. Democracy thrives on a diversity of ideas, and self-censorship starves it,” she continued. “Shifting this discussion so Americans understand that civil liberties are just as fundamental to the country’s long-term well-being as thwarting very rare terrorist attacks is a necessary move.”

What this study shows is that government surveillance is the lubricant covering the slope that leads down to tyranny. Its chilling effect is only going to result in a more rapid depletion of liberty.

If the American people are too afraid to speak their minds, and express what their guts are telling them is right, how can the liberties that the Bill of Rights and Constitution seek to protect exist within society?

I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under. – Edward Snowden


Original article

TLB recommends other articles by Activist Post.


About the author

Joseph Jankowski is a contributor for His works have been published by recognizable alternative news sites like, and  Follow Planet Free Will on Twitter @

About the contributor

TLB image Pam

Pam Barker is a TLB staff writer/analyst. She has an extensive background in the educational system of several countries at the college and university level as a teacher and administrator

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