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Nearly 1 in 4 US Writers Has Self-Censored For Fear of Government Surveillance

A recently released survey of American writers conducted by PEN America Center in October found that government surveillance is having a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

PEN surveyed over 500 US writers about the impact of NSA surveillance revelations on their work and found that self-censorship is rampant due to anxieties about being spied on. Those surveyed admitted to purposely steering clear of writing, speaking about and even researching certain topics. Subjects being avoided relate to military affairs, the Middle East and North Africa, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the US government, all issues in desperate need of sunlight. But self-censorship guarantees that investigative journalism on topics such as these will be hampered.  

From the report:

  • 28% have curtailed or avoided social media activities, and another 12% have seriously considered doing so;
  • 24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations, and another 9% have seriously considered it;
  • 16% have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic, and another 11% have seriously considered it;
  • 16% have refrained from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious, and another 12% have seriously considered it;
  • 13% have taken extra steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints, and another 11% have seriously considered it;
  • 3% have declined opportunities to meet (in person, or electronically) people who might be deemed security threats by the government, and another 4% have seriously considered it.

In countries with outright tyrannical regimes, it’s the government that does the censoring, whereas the US government has managed to get writers to do the legwork for them.

In a nation that prides itself on free speech, this should be cause for alarm. So where is the outrage?   

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6 Comments
  1. Mark Haywood #

    How about anxieties about having their car hacked and blown up , like investigative journalist
    Michael Hastings was while driving his new Mercedes a few months ago in San Diego?

    December 5, 2013
  2. Gilbert #

    While I absolutely think the US needs to cut way the hell back on this surveillance, for most US citizens it’s just paranoia if you think you need to self-censor to avoid negative repercussions.

    Yes, if you’re a journalist who’s talking to people overseas, you may be able to do them some harm as a result of increasing the government’s surveillance of them. Or if you are, in fact, directly involved in illegal activities, or write sarcastic or fictional things online that could be taken by a person with no sense of subtlety as being actual confessions of illegal intent, then you could get the police at your door.

    But if you just want to write about how much you hate the American government, there’s no reason to believe that you’re likely to have any negative consequences at all, except of course for someone violating your privacy by monitoring your communications, which is bad but is no reason to be a deterrent to speaking out. If you want to write about how you think the American government should be destroyed through violence, then you may wind up on a watch list and get hassled at the airport, but that’s it.

    You can probably think of some incident or two of people getting their door kicked down by the police, in America, as a result of writing something critical about the government. These incidents have always happened, but they’ve always been isolated incidents, not part of a consistent pattern, and that’s how it still is today.

    In short, yes, they’re reading our emails. But they’re not kicking our doors down, yet.

    December 5, 2013
    • There’s a history of the radical left in the US “going underground” unnecessarily, isolating groups and inhibiting organization. And, mass surveillance can be self-defeating, generating too much data to analyze usefully.

      A lot of radical left activists I’ve listened to in the last few years, especially since Snowden, have been obsessed with data encryption and anonymizing software. I’d been drawn into this, and I’ve found that these things take a significant amount of time to learn to use, that even the most experienced users of such software will make mistakes, and that most people can’t be bothered to use these tools anyway, making them useless for the purposes of general political organizing.

      So I’m wondering if the real purpose of much of this security apparatus is really to intimidate people into self-censorship, and to push activists to isolate themselves and waste time and energy on efforts to hide themselves from surveillance, which are both futile and unnecessary.

      December 5, 2013
      • Mark Haywood #

        Dude! Journalism has already been declared a form of terrorism by the British government. Soon the US will be going the same way. Freedom of the press is by no means immune to insidious attacks in the form of legislative action like the Patriot Act. ct.

        December 5, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on Begin an Adventure.

    December 14, 2013
  4. JoAnn Chateau #

    Reblogged this on Aware & Fair and commented:
    What is your take on this?

    December 15, 2013

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