Are we sure we are free to say what we want to say? Are we certain that social networks are the place where people can speak freely? A recent study conducted by Wayne University resizes a lot the “Network fairy tale.” Not because there is someone who physically prevents us from posting something (as it happens in countries where the regime controls the Internet), but because the global consciousness “recommends” us not to be out of the context, pushing minorities to stay silent. In the long run, it prevents the growth of a democratic debate and of real alternation. Moreover, the study revealed that the more one is aware of being monitored – without any restrictions – the more he does not use the opportunity the Web offers to express an opinion contrary to that of the mass, or an opinion which is potentially dangerous.
This study considers America, where the mechanism of the spiral of silence was activated. It is a sociological intervention, not a constricting one; yet, the two of them share the same goal: avoiding discussions and standardizing thought.
So, what is it that pushes people “not to talk online” knowing they are listened to? The question is complex, because the motivation behind network control is widely shared, namely the need to increase national security against terrorist attacks. Conversely, however, the information we put on the web, in particular, it is as if our opinions remained imprinted forever, “digital” finger prints, as it were. Be it at work, in politics, in public or in private life, anyone can use them, hence they are potentially harmful.
Since September 11, 2001, both visible and hidden controls have been increasingly intensified. This study is one of the first ones to reveal the potential of silencing effects attributable to online surveillance, and the results document a chilling effect.
Since 2013, however, among non-classified activities appeared the news concerning the existence of PRISM, a system originally designed to monitor and collect online communications between foreign terrorism suspects, but transformed – as surveys conducted by The Washington Post and The Guardian – into a much more invasive control action also for American citizens. A slap in the face of the protection of privacy, on whose defense the US government boasts itself. The program makes it possible for US intelligence agencies to have direct access to the backdoor of global Internet Providers’ servers, thus introducing the potential concept of unauthorized surveillance. Such access allows to monitor and archive emails, chats, search histories, file transfers and other online operations.
Besides PRISM, the NSA (National Security Agency) – the study reads – uses tools such as collection of data upstream, via fiber optics, cables, and malware used to monitor online surfing behavior. The government denies its participation in these activities, which are subsequently downgraded to illegal activities at the hand of individuals, when they were discovered. But it is a fact that 87% of Americans are now aware that their Web shares are subject to interception. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research revealed that 86% of respondents were critical of PRISM, but that they were ready to say this during a family dinner, , in a restaurant with their friends, perhaps during a public meeting, but not with a post on social networks. Here is a prime example of the fact that while “having nothing to hide”, we prefer not to talk. “The enemy is listening: Keep it to yourself” – was one of the slogans that characterized WWII American posters. Today, about 70 years later, this slogan should be revised with “also” the enemy is listening.