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Instead of freeing us, the internet is making us conform

    • 1682 posts
    December 4, 2019 7:04 AM EST
    The fact that we’re far less likely to engage in deviant behavior if we think we’re being watched isn’t a new discovery.

    In 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Newcastle in the
    UK used simple signage in three spots on campus that had an extremely
    high prevalence of bike theft. The signs featured a pair of eyes along
    with prominent statements suggesting that the area was now under
    surveillance.

    The net result? A 62% decrease in overall theft in each of those three locations.

    While I’m all for using technology to promote the public interest and
    reduce criminal acts, the reality is that surveillance may have a far
    more chilling effect on our behavior than initially thought.

    A new study seeking to examine the relationship between mass
    surveillance and online opinion found that people tend to suppress their
    true beliefs if they think their opinions constitute a minority view.

    Far from just stopping illegal acts, mass surveillance may compel us to mold our behavior to please the majority.

    Again, maybe this discovery isn’t exactly new. “Democracy in America,” a
    19th-century treatise written by French sociologist Alexis de
    Tocqueville, warns about the “tyranny of the majority”—a scenario where
    public opinion comprehensively overshadows minorities and those holding
    unpopular views.

    Tocqueville was a fervent admirer of American individualism, but he felt
    that its characteristics could lead to a society where all citizens
    would, paradoxically, try their best to be like each other. And while he
    died far before mass surveillance took effect, his words could have
    been a prophecy of what was to follow.

    The Snowden effect

    The internet was designed to foster community and bring people closer
    together. It aimed to promote free speech, cast aside authoritarianism,
    eradicate barriers to information, and allow people to engage in
    meaningful debate online.

    Events such as the Arab Spring of 2011, also known as the “Twitter
    revolution,” gave us a glimpse of how powerful online communities had
    become. Even repressive governments with monopolies on the instruments
    of violence couldn’t prevent mass uprisings organized purely via social
    media.

    Whether social media actually helps democracy and reduces tyranny is a
    topic for another day, but it’s pertinent to note that the events of the
    Arab Spring haven’t exactly resulted in stronger democratic
    institutions in the Middle East.

    On the other hand, just a couple of years after the Arab Spring,
    the bombshell Snowden revelations of mass surveillance in the U.S. and,
    potentially, around the world, confirmed our darkest fears. The internet
    wasn’t the safe haven we had thought it to be.

    So how did Snowden’s disclosure impact online behavior? According to Jon
    Penney, a former fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center
    for Internet & Society, there was a drastic decline in Wikipedia
    searches for terrorism-related keywords such as Al Qaeda, chemical
    weapon, and jihad.

    The researcher documented that the searches were declining even a year
    after the end of the study. And given the lack of evidence for
    punishment or prosecution for trying to access such information, Penney
    declared that it was unlikely that the fear of prosecution was a reason
    behind the decline. The explanation he offered was “self-censorship.”

    Bruce Schneier, of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for
    Government and International Affairs, has stated that “the fact that you
    won’t do things, that you will self-censor, are the worst effects of
    pervasive surveillance.”

    Welcome the panopticon effect, with slightly modified tools.

    It’s the surveillance, stupid

    Some of this behavior is simply human nature. We’re political animals,
    as Aristotle declared in fourth century BC. We gravitate towards social
    acceptance and community. Most of us don’t seek to be exclusionary and
    are far happier when accepted by others. Hence, if we knew that an
    unknown entity was tracking our every move, we’d do a lot more to be
    perceived as ‘normal’ and just like anybody else.

    But Penney’s findings are far more troubling because they point to a
    situation where the boundaries of debate are being arbitrarily
    delineated. It’s okay to argue over whether the Kardashians are useful
    for society, but not a word against the government. And if you step out
    of line, rest assured that the algorithms will catch you.

    The decentralization of the internet and the lack of a controlling node
    was a key facet in the development of the web by its original founders.
    The fact that they didn’t patent the idea and chose to forgo profits
    speaks volumes to their intention of building strong, global societies
    in an environment free from repression and retribution.

    The internet today is a far cry from the non-commercial ideals of those
    who gave birth to it. Net neutrality is a thing of the past, unlikely to
    ever return. Walled-off internet networks, selective in the information
    and apps they allow, are more common than open and free ones.
    Surveillance is so ubiquitous that we’ve taken a passive view of it,
    almost to the point that it doesn’t bother us anymore.

    Our future is only more devices, not fewer. More facial scanners,
    surveillance cameras, IoT devices, and smarter machine learning
    algorithms to complement them. Intelligent cities. What happens then?
    Blind adherence to unspoken ideals? Apolitical citizenry? Uniformity of
    thought?

    Rather than encouraging and promoting diversity, the internet may end up
    silencing it. And that’s a future we should be worried about.

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