This post originally appeared on Danah Boyd’s blog Apophenia.
Every April, I try to wade through mounds of paperwork to file my taxes. Like most Americans, I’m trying to follow the law and pay all of the taxes that I owe without getting screwed in the process. I try and make sure that every donation I made is backed by proof, every deduction is backed by logic and documentation that I’ll be able to make sense of seven years. Because, like many Americans, I completely and utterly dread the idea of being audited. Not because I’ve done anything wrong, but the exact opposite. I know that I’m filing my taxes to the best of my ability and yet, I also know that if I became a target of interest from the IRS, they’d inevitably find some checkbox I forgot to check or some subtle miscalculation that I didn’t see. And so what makes an audit intimidating and scary is not because I have something to hide but because proving oneself to be innocent takes time, money, effort, and emotional grit.
Sadly, I’m getting to experience this right now as Massachusetts refuses to believe that I moved to New York mid-last-year. It’s mind-blowing how hard it is to summon up the paperwork that “proves” to them that I’m telling the truth. When it was discovered that Verizon (and presumably other carriers) was giving metadata to government officials, my first thought was: Wouldn’t it be nice if the government would use that metadata to actually confirm that I was in NYC, not Massachusetts? But that’s the funny thing about how data is used by our current government. It’s used to create suspicion, not to confirm innocence.
The frameworks of “innocent until proven guilty” and “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” are really, really important to civil liberties, even if they mean that some criminals get away. These frameworks put the burden on the powerful entity to prove that someone has done something wrong. Because it’s actually pretty easy to generate suspicion, even when someone is wholly innocent. And still, even with this protection, innocent people are sentenced to jail and even given the death penalty. Because if someone has a vested interest in you being guilty, it’s not impossible to paint that portrait, especially if you have enough data.
It’s disturbing to me how often I watch as someone’s likeness is constructed in ways that contorts the image of who they are. This doesn’t require a high-stakes political issue. This is playground stuff. In the world of bullying, I’m astonished at how often schools misinterpret situations and activities to construct narratives of perpetrators and victims. Teens get really frustrated when they’re positioned as perpetrators, especially when they feel as though they’ve done nothing wrong. Once the stakes get higher, all hell breaks loose. In Sticks and Stones, Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon details how media and legal involvement in bullying cases means that they often spin out of control, such as they did in South Hadley. I’m still bothered by the conviction of Dharun Ravi in the highly publicized death of Tyler Clementi. What happens when people are tarred and feathered as symbols for being imperfect?
Of course, it’s not just one’s own actions that can be used against one’s likeness. Guilt-through-association is a popular American pastime. Remember how the media used Billy Carter to embarrass Jimmy Carter? Of course, it doesn’t take the media or require an election cycle for these connections to be made. Throughout school, my little brother had to bear the brunt of teachers who despised me because I was a rather rebellious student. So when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred, it didn’t surprise me that the media went hogwild looking for any connection to the suspects. Over and over again, I watched as the media took friendships and song lyrics out of context to try to cast the suspects as devils. By all accounts, it looks as though the brothers are guilty of what they are accused of, but that doesn’t make their friends and other siblings evil or justify the media’s decision to portray the whole lot in such a negative light.
So where does this get us? People often feel immune from state surveillance because they’ve done nothing wrong. This rhetoric is perpetuated on American TV. And yet the same media who tells them they have nothing to fear will turn on them if they happen to be in close contact with someone who is of interest to—or if they themselves are the subject of—state interest. And it’s not just about now, but it’s about always.
And here’s where the implications are particularly devastating when we think about how inequality, racism, and religious intolerance play out. As a society, we generate suspicion of others who aren’t like us, particularly when we believe that we’re always under threat from some outside force. And so the more that we live in doubt of other people’s innocence, the more that we will self-segregate. And if we’re likely to believe that people who aren’t like us are inherently suspect, we won’t try to bridge those gaps. This creates societal ruptures and undermines any ability to create a meaningful republic. And it reinforces any desire to spy on the “other” in the hopes of finding something that justifies such an approach. But, like I said, it doesn’t take much to make someone appear suspect.
In many ways, the NSA situation that’s unfolding in front of our eyes is raising a question that is critical to the construction of our society. These issues cannot be washed away by declaring personal innocence. A surveillance state will produce more suspect individuals. What’s at stake has to do with how power is employed, by whom, and in what circumstances. It’s about questioning whether or not we still believe in checks and balances to power. And it’s about questioning whether or not we’re OK with continue to move toward a system that presumes entire classes and networks of people as suspect. Regardless of whether or not you’re in one of those classes or networks, are you OK with that being standard fare? Because what is implied in that question is a much uglier one: Is your perception of your safety worth the marginalization of other people who don’t have your privilege?