Future Tense

Whose Speech Is Chilled by Surveillance?

Women and young people are more likely to self-censor if they think they’re being monitored.


Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iStock.

Earlier this month, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats backtracked on a promise to disclose how many Americans’ communications have been swept up in warrantless mass surveillance of foreign targets. In fact, Coats admitted that even “Herculean” efforts by the NSA would be unable to the determine the number, which Reuters reports “could be in the millions.”

This is not just an American concern. States around the world are increasingly policing internet activities. Online surveillance is now common among governments and companies alike. Recently, for instance, my colleagues at the Citizen Lab, located at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, revealed in a report that the Mexican government has used surveillance spyware to track and monitor Mexican journalists, human rights lawyers, and activists. And cyberbullying and harassment are on the rise, too.

Activists and rights experts have long argued that such state activities and threats can have a significant chilling effect on our rights and freedoms. Though skepticism persists about the existence of such chilling effects—they are often subtle, difficult to measure, and people are unaware how they are impacted—several recent studies have documented the phenomenon. My own research, which received media coverage last year, examined how Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance chilled people’s Wikipedia use.

Yet significant gaps remain in our understanding, including how certain people, groups, or specific online activities may be chilled more so than others, or the comparative impact of different state activities or regulatory threats.

As it turns out, these threats likely do have a chilling effect on things we do online every day—from online speech and discussion, to internet search, to sharing content. And certain people or groups—like women or young people—may be affected more than others.

These are among the key findings I discuss in my new chilling effects research paper, published in the peer-reviewed Internet Policy Review, based on an empirical case study from my doctorate at the University of Oxford. The study involves a first-of-its-kind survey, administered to more than 1,200 U.S.-based adult internet users. It was designed to explore multiple dimensions of chilling effects online by comparing and analyzing responses to hypothetical scenarios that, in theory, may cause chilling effects or self-censorship. The internet users who participated in the survey were relatively representative of U.S. internet users more generally, with a few biases—it was gender balanced, but respondents were somewhat younger, less wealthy, and more educated than the average user. Responses were compiled, compared, and statistically analyzed.

My findings suggested that once people were made aware of different online threats, they were less willing to engage in a range of activities online. For example, when made aware of online surveillance by the government, noteworthy percentages of respondents were less likely to speak or write about certain things online, less likely to share personally created content, less likely to engage with social media, and more cautious in their internet speech or search. In other words, there was a clear chilling effect. There was a comparable impact for other hypothetical online threats like a law that criminalized certain kinds of online speech, or a scenario where internet users personally receives a legal threat for content they had posted online.

For example, in terms of online speech, 62 percent of respondents indicated they would be “much less likely” (22 percent) or “somewhat less likely” (40 percent) to “speak or write about certain topics online” due to such online surveillance by government. And 78 percent of respondents “strongly” (38 percent) or “somewhat” agreed (40 percent) they would be more cautious about what they say online due to the surveillance. Similarly, 75 percent of respondents indicated they would be “much less likely” (40 percent) or “somewhat less likely” (35 percent) to “speak or write about certain topics online” after receiving a personal legal threat about something they had previously posted online. Eighty-one percent of respondents indicated they “strongly agreed” (50 percent) or “somewhat agreed” (31 percent) that they would be more cautious or careful about their online speech. I even found evidence of indirect chilling effects—that is, internet users were less likely to speak or share when a friend in their online social network was targeted by a legal threat.

I also found that participants with greater awareness of NSA news stories were more likely to be chilled by government surveillance. Though consistent with other studies, including my own, suggesting chilling effects associated with NSA surveillance, no previous study has documented this statistically significant relationship.

But that is not all. My statistical findings also suggest a greater chilling effect on women and younger internet users.

In every scenario examined, I found a statistically significant age effect: The younger the participant, the greater the chilling effect. This association was strongest in the scenario involving government surveillance.

This is noteworthy given the common perception that young people care little about privacy or surveillance. My findings suggest otherwise—if younger internet users care little for privacy, why would they be more likely chilled? Rather, as social media researchers like Danah Boyd have argued, young people do care about privacy. They just navigate those concerns differently than adults. Indeed, in the post-Snowden era, it may be—as Boyd and colleagues Alice Marwick and Claire Fontaine recently suggested—that the language and theory of surveillance, rather than privacy, best explains the behavior of youth in response to the complex ecosystem of surveillance and similar data threats they encounter online.

I also found female internet users in the study were more likely to be chilled in scenarios involving surveillance and personal legal threats for content posted online, with the statistical association strongest in the latter scenario. Besides being more often the victims of online harassment, my findings suggest women may also be more negatively affected when targeted with legal and regulatory threats.

But surely, someone worried about government surveillance or who has received a legal threat can hire a lawyer or take other steps to defend themselves? Unfortunately, I found a statistically significant negative association between female and younger participants and a willingness to take steps to challenge a personal legal threat they believed was wrong (e.g., hiring a lawyer, going to court, or replying with correspondence). In other words, women and younger internet users in the study were less likely to take steps to defend themselves.

When citizens are able to freely speak and debate, search the internet for information they need to inform themselves, and openly share their creative works, our culture is richer, public deliberation more robust, and democracy stronger. My study suggests chilling effects, due to online surveillance and other legal/regulatory threats, put all of these freedoms at risk in subtle and invidious ways while affecting certain people or groups more than others.

Far more work must be done to shed light on the nature, scope, and persistence of chilling effects, especially online. That, at the very least, is a first step to avoid a future with increasing “social cooling” and the greater self-censorship, conformity, caution, reticence, and fear it entails.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.