Tuesday, August 26, 2014


We spend a lot of time talking about how telecoms and entertainment conglomerates are contriving ways to have you and your non-conforming opinions kicked off of their internet.  And, to be sure, that is the overarching concern right now.

But we talk less about how our we're self-censoring our way off the internet through our own behavior.
WASHINGTON (AP) — People on Facebook and Twitter say they are less likely to share their opinions on hot-button issues, even when they are offline, according to a surprising new survey by the Pew Research Center.

The study, done in conjunction with Rutgers University in New Jersey, challenges the view of social media as a vehicle for debate by suggesting that sites like Facebook and Twitter might actually encourage self-censorship. Researchers said they detect what they call the “spiral of silence” phenomenon: Unless people know their audience agrees, they are likely to shy away from discussing anything controversial.

In other words, most of us are more comfortable with ice-bucket challenges than political banter.

“People do not tend to be using social media for this type of important political discussion. And if anything, it may actually be removing conversation from the public sphere,” said Keith Hampton, a communications professor at Rutgers University who helped conduct the study.
The study cites social pressure and hints at worries over government surveillance issuing from the Snowden revelations.  There's also the concern what you say on social media might affect future employment prospects or even  your credit rating.

Personally, I've always believed the best reaction to this is for everyone to just say fuck it and let it all hang out anyway. But I also think this preference has to do with the peculiar time during which I and the internets came of age together.

I grew up experiencing a.. mostly.. analog social environment. I mean... the 80s and 90s weren't exactly the dark ages. We had Nintendo and cable TV and personal computing devices. But until I was in my 20s, the internet was something you dialed into on occasion and even then for less than an hour at a time, usually.

In that environment political discussion was something that happened within your limited circle.. or more often between you and the television set.  The official narrative was set by big corporate media companies and it flowed in one direction.   When the internet finally afforded large numbers of us access to web publishing platforms like the one I'm typing on right now, it was incredibly liberating. Suddenly a whole mess of us were not only talking back to the screen but  we could hear each other doing it.  The benefit of knowing you're not alone is a difficult thing to impress on people these days.

People have already forgotten the profound changes it brought to local and national politics. Or at least I think we take a lot of it for granted now.  But as commercial media absorbs more and more of the internet we're in danger of ceding back what ground we had gained plus a whole lot more.

I've tried to point out the chilling effects of the digital panopticon numerous times in recent years. I'll pull out my favorite Dan Savage quote once again, though.
Savage playfully pandered, saying, “I’m a print guy, and I think books are magic.” But he added a very real and sobering message: not all kids can risk getting caught with an incriminating browser history, nor do many kids have access to YouTube at school.

The book is for them, Savage said, and challenged school librarians to put it on the shelves where kids in need might find it and “read it surreptitiously, if that’s what they need to do at that point in their lives.”

Here again, Savage linked the subversive quality of his YouTube and book project to the knowledge dissemination mission of libraries. It puts LGBT adults in touch-if indirectly-with the LGBT youth who need to hear their messages.
I was lucky enough to become an adult well before anyone had to worry about whether the very act of pursuing a line of intellectual inquiry would be recorded, and scrutinized.. potentially forever by everyone. The panoptic internet could be conditioning us to fear, not only overt expression of controversial opinion, but even the act of investigating and formulating those opinions in the first place.

What do we do now to ensure that people can be educated while feeling safe to think independently?

There are a number of things, in fact, but the first and easiest thing we can do is to defy the "spiral of silence" on social media. Because unless everyone is yelling back at the screen, it begins to feel as though no one is.

No comments: