“Don’t use social media for serious issues” and the rise of self-censorship


I suppose there are different ways to react when it comes to the newly leaked (though unsurprising) world wide surveillance programs by the NSA. One can, for instance, protest it by asserting fundamental rights to privacy and free speech, or reject the red herring pretexts of “security”, or remind people that indiscriminate, unchecked governmental surveillance is destined for abuse and corruption, etc. Or, as Anne-Marie Eklund Löwinder proposes in the DN article “Don’t use social media for serious issues”, we should simply submit to the realities of this Brave New World and limit our online social outings to lightweight subjects like “choice of breakfast” and “pictures of cats” [translated]:

According to Anne-Marie Eklund Löwinder one should be self-critical about what stories to share. To say what you’ve had for breakfast, that you’ve taken a walk, or to post pictures of your cat is fairly innocent.
– That’s about the level you should limit yourself to. Social media is not to be used for more serious issues, she says.

And even though what you post might be legal now, who knows what will happen later:

– Today we live in a democratic society, but that can change and what you do might become illegal. […] The point is that everythings that is used can also be abused. The lesser information there is stored about you and what you do, the lesser the risk for abuse.

The logic behind Löwinder’s advice seems to be that in order to avoid repercussions for one’s opinions – or even future hypothetical criminality – we should render ourselves irrelevant by sticking to trivialities. If this self-capitulating mentality doesn’t froth the mouths of the totalitarian surveillance state architects then nothing will. Who needs big, noisy dictatorships when the citizenry is already self-monitoring and self-censoring?

This also illustrates the process by which surveillance becomes self-perpetuating. The NSA could possess all the resources in the world; surveilling everyone all the time still wouldn’t be plausible. The trick instead is to instill in people a fear of being monitored, since this will cause the individual to monitor herself. Hereby surveillance transforms from a technical to an organic modus operandi, from being imposed to being incepted.

Hollywood actor Jason Beghe used the phrase “It’s a put yourself in jail type of thing” in his lengthy 2008 interview about his time in Scientology. In it, he lays out in great detail what lured him to the cult-like organization, the mental breakdown he faced while staying and the hardships of leaving. One of recurrent themes in his testimony is how he made himself stay, despite getting worse and worse by the practices. He ponders:

If I’m trying to enslave somebody, the last thing I want to do is have to worry about fucking keeping the key in the lock, and you know, the best trap is the kind that will keep himself in jail.

In the case of Scientology, part of the reason people stay is its culture where parishioners are constantly indoctrination to believe that they are to blame for any setback, failure or lack of personal or organizational gain. It’s never Scientology’s fault, it’s your own fault. You need to sort your own issues out. You need to change because the technology is perfect. It is an oppressive and subjugating structure by design.

This game of blameshifting ties in to the notion that it’s somehow the surveillance victim who is expected to take measures and impose self-censorship. Though doing so may still be a rational decision, advocating it under any other premise than extreme measures to draconian circumstances is irresponsible and subjugates the victim under the surveillance apparatus.

I do think Löwinder in general makes a correct observation, but is then diametrically wrong in her solution. We as citizens should indeed stay well aware about the implications and dangers of data collection and surveillance, whether by government or by private companies. But the solution certainly isn’t to restrain expression – but to defend our liberties, demand checks and balances and stay vigilant of abuses of power. And, most importantly, to keep mixing up the everyday postings about cats or coffee foam with the hard, important issues.

The Guardian: SA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily
Atlantic: 71% of Facebook Users Engage in ‘Self-Censorship’

Template for Facebook status updates

What most people really are saying:

I am attractive. I am intelligent. I am sophisticated. I am successful in what I do. I have many friends. I have fun. I have a beautiful family. I have a big house. I am humble. I realize that what I do here is really just a form of public bragging and therefore make sure to veil it by inserting a petty mishap or pseudo-failure now and then.

Or, in my case:

I get bitter and annoyed by people’s self-promotion and make sarcastic blog posts about it.