Did Edward Snowden Really Change America?

Beto Barata/AFP/Getty Images

Beto Barata/AFP/Getty Images

You’re talking with a friend on the bus about another friend. You’re complaining about your boss in the company bathroom. And then, with a gut wrenching, heart stopping realization, you suddenly notice your friends perfume waft up from behind you; your bosses shoes are under that last stall. America as a nation had one of those same “oh sh*#!” moments when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden released government documents revealing the extent of the federal government’s national surveillance program.

With something like this, the expectation, and really the fear, is that Americans would have an extreme initial reaction to the release — which they did — followed by a steady lapse into numb indifference and acceptance. It turns out, that may be only half the story, and the other half is visible in what people do (and more importantly don’t) post on social media.

The road so far

There was an initial surge of concern over government surveillance and personal privacy just after Snowden’s documents were released, and the documents themselves had tangible governmental effects. President Barack Obama addressed the releases, launching a re-assessement of NSA powers and oversight — efforts people are still debating didn’t go far enough. Yet even before these actions were taken American concern had started to taper. As of January 31, just after Obama gave his State of the Union address, Americans weren’t as worried as you might expect. In June 2013, just after Snowden put his information out to the public, 53 percent said they disapproved of the government’s database. But just after the State of the Union, when Obama announced his intentions regarding systematic reform, only 42 percent of poll respondents placed government surveillance of civilians extremely or very high on Gallup‘s list of concerns. Still, 63 percent said they were very or somewhat dissatisfied with the government surveillance being seen at the time, and it’s notable that the phrasing and relative content of these polls seems pretty vital to responses.

Still, Snowden and government surveillance has managed to stay on America’s radar. It helps that much of the NSA documents have taken time to analyze, meaning there are sudden media shocks that come in surges as the information is picked through and analyzed. Not to mention the various subsequent interviews Snowden himself has given, and international attention his disclosures have drawn. Other nations’ citizens began questioning their own government surveillance, and foreign governments have taken a second look at America’s surveillance of their own countries; especially given the two American spies caught in Germany, an American ally.

What social media tells us

What’s interesting beyond the waxing and waning concern Americans show over privacy in polls, is indirect evidence from Pew Research that Snowden’s disclosures had a marked effect on how people perceive technology, their privacy, and their government. The survey showed very clearly that respondents, some 1,801 adults, were considerably more reluctant to talk about Snowden and the NSA via social media versus a face-to-face conversation. Americans showed 86 percent willing to discuss the matter in person, while only 42 percent wanted to discuss it on Facebook or Twitter.

Pew Research used this and other findings as a way to demonstrate that the tendency people have to avoid divisive subject matter has grown to extend to social media. Rather than opening the doors for discussion on topics people might otherwise avoid, people tend to avoid those same topics on Facebook just the same as they would in person, and even more so. This is especially true if they believe people disagree with them. Yet I’d argue this shows us a few things. The first is a well known psychological phenomena; people don’t like to give opinions they believe may be unpopular in groups. A study was once done by some psychologists many years ago, in which a group of people were held in an interview room and questioned on a variety of things while smoke was steadily fed in through an air vent. All but one of the individuals were plants, with strict instructions not to mention the smoke. In each study done, the uninstructed individual took an unusually long time to mention the smoke, because nobody else in the room seemed to deem it relevant or concerning.

The same principle holds for conversation and discussion in a more general way, and, apparently, to social media as well. People recognize more and more that social media is public. You receive the same angry input from readers and fellow Internet users as you’d get in person, except often worse — just ask writers at The Wall St. Cheat Sheet — and what you say is available for everyone you know to read.

It also seems likely that some might find the subject matter difficult to discuss on that platform because it’s rather sensitive when it comes to Internet privacy. It seems only logical to think that a poll on government surveillance of civilian online activity might not be well responded to online — it’s an ironic choice of topic from Pew. It’s reasonable to suggest that the question and method of answer might be at least lightly linked.

This is something the study itself admits near the end of its report, saying “the context of the Snowden-NSA story may also have made it somewhat different form other kinds of public debates. … 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.” It seems like “including” would be better phrased as “especially.” The poll is hardly a direct or clear reading on public paranoia since Snowden’s documents came to light, but it does hint at what could be a more sensitized public.

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Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS