Writers Silenced by Surveillance: Self-Censorship in the Age of Big Data

Nik Williams, the policy advisor for Scottish PEN, the Scottish centre of PEN International. We are leading the campaign opposing suspicionless surveillance and protecting the rights of writers both in Scotland and across the globe. Find out more on Twitter at @scottishpenand @nikwilliams2. Originally published at openDemocracy

We know what censorship looks like: writers being murdered, attacked or imprisoned; TV and radio stations being shut down; the only newspapers parrot the state; journalists lost in the bureaucratic labyrinth to secure a license or permit; government agencies approving which novels, plays and poetry collections can be published; books being banned or burned or the extreme regulation of access to printing materials or presses. All of these damage free expression, but they leave a fingerprint, something visible that can be measured, but what about self-censorship? This leaves no such mark.

When writers self-censor, there is no record, they just stop writing or avoid certain topics and these decisions are lost to time. Without being able to record and document isolated cases the way we can with explicit government censorship, the only thing we can do is identify potential drivers to self-censorship.

In 2013, NSA whistle blower, Edward Snowden revealed the extent of government surveillance that enables intelligence agencies to capture the data of internet users around the world. Some of the powers revealed enable agencies to access emails in transit, files held on devices, details that document our relationships and location in real-time and data that could reveal our political opinions, beliefs and routines. Following these revelations, the UK government pushed through the Investigatory Powers Act, an audacious act that modernised, consolidated and expanded digital surveillance powers. This expansion was opposed by civil rights organisations, (including Scottish PEN where I work), technologists, a number of media bodies and major tech companies, but on 29th November 2016, it received royal assent.

But what did this expansion do to our right to free expression?

As big data and digital surveillance is interwoven into the fabric of modern society there is growing evidence that the perception of surveillance affects how different communities engage with the internet. Following the Snowden revelations, John Penny at the Oxford Internet Institute analysed traffic to Wikipedia pages on topics designated by the Department of Homeland Security as sensitive and identified “a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.’” This report was in line with a study by Alex Marthews and Catherine Tucker who found a similar trend in the avoidance of sensitive topics in Google search behaviour in 41 countries. This has significant impact on both free expression and democracy, as outlined by Penney: “If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.”

But it doesn’t end with sourcing information. In a study of Facebook, Elizabeth Stoycheff discovered that when faced with holders of majority opinions and the knowledge of government surveillance, holders of minority viewpoints are more likely to “self-censor their dissenting opinions online”. If holders of minority opinions step away from online platforms like Facebook, these platforms will only reflect the majority opinion, homogenising discourse and giving a false idea of consensus. Read together, these studies document a slow erosion of the eco-system within which free expression flourishes.

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In 2013, PEN America surveyed American writers to see whether the Snowden revelations impacted their willingness to explore challenging issues and continue to write. In their report, Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives US Writers to Self-Censor, PEN America found that “one in six writers avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance”. But is this bigger than the US? Scottish PEN, alongside researchers at the University of Strathclyde authored the report, Scottish Chilling: Impact of Government and Corporate Surveillance on Writers to explore the impact of surveillance on Scotland-based writers, asking the question: Is the perception of surveillance a driver to self-censorship? After surveying 118 writers, including novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, translators, editors and publishers, and interviewing a number of participants we uncovered a disturbing trend of writers avoiding certain topics in their work or research, modifying their work or refusing to use certain online tools. 22% of responders have avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic due to the perception of surveillance and 28% have curtailed or avoided activities on social media. Further to this, 82% said that if they knew that the UK government had collected data about their Internet activity they would feel as though their personal privacy had been violated, something made more likely by the passage of the investigatory Powers Act.

At times, surveillance appears unavoidable and this was evident in many of the writers’ responses to whether they could take actions to mitigate the risks of surveillance. Without knowing how to secure themselves there are limited options: writers either resign themselves to using insecure tools or choose to avoid the internet all together, cutting them off from important sources of information and potential communities of readers and support. Literacy concerning the use of Privacy-Enhancing Technologies (oftentimes called PETs) is a vital part of how we protect free expression in the digital age, but as outlined by the concerns of a number of the participants, it is largely under-explored outside of the tech community: “I think probably I need to get educated a wee bit more by someone…because I think we probably are a bit exposed and a wee bit vulnerable, more than we realise.” Another was even more stark about their worries about the available alternatives: “I have no idea about how to use the Internet ‘differently’”.

When interviewed, a number of writers expressed concerns about how their writing process has changed or is in danger of changing as a result of their awareness of surveillance. One participant who had covered the conflict in Northern Ireland in 70s and 80s stated that they would not cover the conflict in the same manner if it took place now; another stopped writing about child abuse when they thought about what their search history may look to someone else; when they heard of a conviction based on the ownership of the Anarchist Cookbook, a participant who bought a copy for research shredded it. Further to this a participant stated: “I think I would avoid direct research on issues to do with Islamic fundamentalism. I might work on aspects of the theory, but not on interviewing people…in the past, I have interviewed people who would be called…‘subversives’.”

These modifications or avoidance strategies raise a stark and important question: What are we as readers being denied if writers are avoiding sensitive topics? Put another way, what connects the abuse of personal data by Cambridge Analytica, the treatment of asylum seekers by the Australian government on Manus and Nauru, the hiding of billions of pounds by wealthy individuals as revealed in the Panama and Paradise Papers, the deportation of members of the ‘Windrush Generation’ and the Watergate scandal? In each case, writers revealed to the world what others wanted hidden. Shadows appear less dense if writers are able to explore challenging issues and expose wrongdoing free from the coercive weight of pervasive surveillance. When writers are silenced, even by their own hand, we all suffer.

Surveillance is going nowhere – it is embedded into the fabric of the internet. If we ignore the impact it has on writers, we threaten the very foundations of democracy; a vibrant and cacophonous exchange of ideas and beliefs, alongside what it means to be a writer. In the words of one participant: “You can’t exist as a writer if you’re self-censoring.”

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  1. Thuto

    Thanks Yves, this is an important topic. Although not explicitly laid out in the post, i’m inclined to believe any online research on PETs might single one out as a “Person of Interest” (after all the state wants unfettered access to our digital lives and any attempt by individuals to curtail such access is viewed with suspicion, and maybe even a little contempt).

    I trust the takeaway message from this post will resonate with any person who holds what might be considered “heretical” or dissenting views. I’d also argue that it’s not just writers who are willingly submitting themselves to this self-censorship straitjacket, ordinary people are themselves sanitizing their views to avoid veering too far off the official line/established consensus on issues, lest they fall foul of the machinery of the security state.

    1. norm de plume

      Yes – not just ‘writers’ as in ‘those who write for a living or at least partly define themselves as writers in either a creative or an activist sense, or both’ – but all of us who do not perceive ourselves as ‘writers’, only as people who in the course of their lives write a bit here and there, some of it on public platforms such as this, but much of it in emails and texts to friends and family. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the surveillance was only of the public stuff, but we know better now – EVERYTHING is recorded and archived. Privacy may not be dead yet, but now exists only in carefully curated offline pockets, away from not just the phone and the laptop, but also the smart fridge’s and the face-recognising camera’s gimlet eye.

      Staying with the ‘not just’ for a moment – the threat is not just government security agencies and law enforcement, or indeed Surveillance Valley. It is clear that if egghead techs in those employments are able to crack our lives open then egghead techs in their parent’s basement around the corner may be capable of the same intrusions, their actions not subject to any of the official box-ticking govt actors with which govt actors must (or at least should) comply.

      And it is not just the danger of govt/sinister 3rd parties identifying potential security (or indeed political or economic) threats out of big data analysis, but the danger of govt and especially interested third parties targeting particular known individuals – political enemies to be sure, but also love rivals, toxic bosses, hated alpha males or queen bitches, supporters of other football clubs, members of other races not deemed fully human,.. the list is as long as that of human hatreds and jealousies. The danger lies not just in the use of the tech to ID threats (real or imagined) but in its application to traduce threats already perceived.

      And it’s not just off centre political opining that could be used in such efforts. The percentages of internet users who have accused porn sites suggests there would be some serious overlap between the set of well known and/or ‘important’ people and the set of porn hounds. Remember the cack-handed attempts to smear Hans Blix? Apparently no fire behind that smoke, but what if there was? The mass US surveillance of other parties prior to UN Iraq deliberations (from the Merkels down to their state-level support bureaucrats) was a fleeting and hastily forgotten glimpse of the reach of TIA, its ‘full spectrum dominance’, from the heights of top level US-free strategy meetings down to the level of the thoughts and hopes of valets and ostlers to the leaders, who may be useful in turning up references to the peccadilloes of the higher-ups… ‘go massive – sweep it all up, things related and not’

      And it’s not just the fear of some sort of official retribution for dissenting political activism that guides our hands away from typing that deeply held but possibly inflammatory and potentially dangerous opinion. Most of us (real writers or just people who write) need to hold down a job and increasingly HR depts don’t just ‘do a Google’ on all potential appointees to important roles but in large concerns at least, use algorithmic software connected to the web and the Cloud to process applications. This is done without human intervention at the individual level but the whole process is set up in such a way that the algorithms are able to neatly, bloodlessly, move applicants for whom certain keywords turned up matches (union or party membership, letters to the editor or blog posts on financial fraud, climate change vanguardism, etc) to the back of the queue, in time producing a grey army of yes people in our bureaucracies.

      The normal person’s ability to keep pace with (let alone ahead of) the tech disappeared long ago. So when a possible anonymising solution – Tor – crops up but is soon exposed as yet another MI/SV bastard love child, the sense of disappointment is profound. Shocked but not surprised.

      Truly, we are surrounded.

      1. emorej a hong kong

        political enemies to be sure, but also love rivals, toxic bosses, hated alpha males or queen bitches, supporters of other football clubs, members of other races not deemed fully human,.. the list is as long as that of human hatreds and jealousies.

        Not only “human” hatreds and jealousies, but also institutional interests — most obviously: if not enough Jihadis, Occupiers or Personal Privacy-enhancers, etc. are discovered, then institutions’ budgets require discovering, demonizing and/or entrapping some other “threat”.

  2. Steve H.

    “Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? ”

    We already know insurers have been using online searches to discriminate amongst the victimae. The married/unmarried differences in cancer treatments are a confirmation. Self-censorship is a rational decision in seeking information in a linked world. (I gave up on affording insurance, and I do searches for friends; the ads I get are amusing.)

    It could be said that journalists have a professional duty, but as the man said, “If you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

    As the woman said, “If your business depends on a platform, your business is already dead.”

    (As for the above quote, check the provenance for the relevance.)

      1. Steve H.

        Thank you very much, I had searched and found the variant.

        Seriously, do you have a link to the original (post? comment?) I quote you often on this. Or try to.

          1. Steve H.

            That’s exactly what happened.

            I confess I do concatenate your quotes on occasion: “For a currency to function as a reserve currency … is tantamount to exporting jobs.” Some of your most illuminating statements are in side comments to linked articles.

            Means I spend a lot of time reading the site. But then I get to recategorize most other current events sites as ‘Entertainment.’ And since they’re not very, they’ve been downregulated.

      1. Steve H.

        My choice being shackled e’n more to chains of FIRE, or living a healthy happy life, rather than increasing my stress by fighting institutions, we’re investing in ourselves. Good sleep, good food, good exercise.

        The basis of our diet is coffee, with cocoa (7% daily fiber with each tablespoon) and organic heavy whipping cream (your fats should be organic (;)). That cream’s not cheap; well, actually it is amazingly cheap considering the energy inputs. I’ll be fasting soon to murder cancer cells, and fasting also costs, lets see, nothing.

        That the best thing you can do is nothing, occasionally, is a strong offset to the institutional framework. Janet’s been a nurse 40 years, and every day (truth) we get another instance of not wanting the probisci inserted. Even when we get M4A, we’ll be cautious in our approach.

  3. The Rev Kev

    I suppose that here we are looking at the dogs that did not bark for evidence of self-censorship. Certainly my plans to take over the world I do not keep on my computer. I had not considered the matter but I think that a case could be made that this may extend further than just writers. The number of writers that cannot publish in the US but must publish their work in obscure overseas publications is what happens to those who do not seek to self censor. There are other forms of censorship to be true. I read once where there was an editorial meeting for either the Washington Post or New York Times when a story came up that would make Israel look bad. The people at the table looked around and without so much as a nod that story was dropped from publication. Now that is self-censorship.
    But I can see this self censorship at work elsewhere. To let my flight take fancy, who will paint the modern “Guernica” in this age? Would there be any chance that a modern studio would ever film something like “The Day After” mentioned in comments yesterday again? With so many great stories to be told, why has Hollywood run itself into a creative ditch and is content to film 1960s TV shows as a movie or a version of Transformers number 32? Where are the novels being written that will come to represent this era in the way that “The Great Gatsby” came to represent the 1920s? My point is that with a total surveillance culture, I have the feeling that this is permeating the culture and creating a chilling effect right across the board and just not in writing.

    1. Tomonthebeach

      What we are experiencing censorship-wise is nothing new, just more insidious. It is not even a Left/Right politics issue. We just saw Trumpist fascist conservatives KILL the Weekly Standard (an action praised by Trump) for advocating the wrong conservativism. The shift in the televised/streamed media from news to infotainment has enabled neoliberal capitalism to censor any news that might alienate viewers/subscribers to justify obscene charges for advertising. Hilariously, even fascist Laura Ingram got gored by her own neolib ox.

      Of course, a certain amount of self-censorship is prudent. Insulting, inflammatory, inciteful, hateful speech seldom animates beneficial change – just pointless violence (an sometimes law suits). Americans especially are so hung up on “free speech” rights that they too often fail to realize that no speech is truly free. There are always consequences for the purveyor, good and bad. Ask any kid on the playground with a bloody nose.

      I would like to see some Google traitor write an article on the latest semantic analysis algorithms and tools. Thanks to the government, nobody but the FEDs and Google have access to these new tools that can mine terabytes of speech in seconds to highlight global patterns which might indicate plotting or organizing that might be entirely legal. I have been trying for years to get access to the newer unobtainable tools to help improve the development of diagnostic and monitoring self-report health measures. Such tools can also quickly scan journals to highlight and coordinate findings to accelerate new discoveries. For now, they are used to determine if your emails indicate you are a jihadist terrorist or dope peddler, or want to buy a Toyota or a Ford.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Where are the novels…?

      Rhetorical I know, but Don DeLillo is quite good. It was in his novel Libra, although arguably from/about a different era at this point, where it first hit home to me that the Blob really does manipulate the media to its own ends all the time. And you can’t swing a cat without hitting a terrorist in his books.

      But to your point, DeLillo is pretty old at this point and I’m hard pressed to think of anyone picking up his mantle. And none of his novels, as brilliant as some of them might be, rise to the level of The Great Gatsby in the popular imagination to begin with.

  4. cnchal

    The surveillance people are the nicest, kindest human beings that have only your best interest at heart.

    They would never break down your door and terrorize you for searching online for a pressure cooker and if you heard stories that they did that, the surveillancers have an answer for you, it’s fake news, and if you persisted in not believing them, there are other methods of persuasion to get you to change your mind or at least shut up about it.

    1. Carolinian

      That pressure cooker story gets a lot of mileage. While there is undoubtedly a lot of surveillance it might be interesting to see a story on just how much of it leads to actual arrests on real or trumped up charges. Here’s suggesting that the paranoia induced by books like Surveillance Valley is over the top in the same way that TV news’ focus on crime stories causes the public to think that crime is rampant when it may actually be declining.

      That said, journalists who indulge their vanity with Facebook or Twitter accounts are obviously asking for it. And the journalistic world in general needs to become a lot more technologically “literate” and realize that Youtube videos can be faked as well as how to separate the internet wheat from the chaff. Plus there’s that old fashioned way of learning a story that is probably the way most stories are still reported: talking to people–hopefully in a room that hasn’t been bugged.

      Just to add that while the above may apply to America that doesn’t mean the web isn’t a much more sinister phenomenon in countries like China with its new social trust score. We must make sure the US never goes there.

      1. orange cats

        Finally! If all the emails and all the phone calls and all the online activity of all the people are being monitored by the government and whomever, precisely what are they going to do with this massive data? And isn’t it possible they are collecting data, not for nefarious reasons, but because they can?

        As far as self-censorship, it was hella worse before the internet.

        1. Acacia

          It all goes in giant data centers like the one in Utah that’s operated by the NSA. Ever heard of a yottabyte? That’s how they measure their storage.

          1. orange cats

            My point relates to what Carolinian said about police busting down your doors because of something you bought online. Right. It’s like the pearl clutching over Russia. I can’t get worked up about a galaxy of data that some spooks hoover up just because they can,

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      For your first sentence I think you are referencing:
      The surveillance people are “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being[s] I’ve ever known in my life.” (ref. Statement by Major Marco about Raymond Shaw from 1962 and 2004 movies “The Manchurian Candidate”). ?
      Maybe you need some refresher re-education.

  5. thoughtful person

    Expression of minority opinions and surpressed information is not a safe activity, thus we self censor. However reality asserts itself and perhaps in those moments one can more safely express alternate points of view. As far as writing online i worry about the future – with everything recorded and searchable, will we at some point be facing round ups of dissidents? What kind of supression will stressed governments and corporate hierarchies do in the future?

  6. William Hunter Duncan

    I think the last blog post I wrote that was linked here at NC was called “TPP is Treason.”

    I was writing and was published on the Internet from 2011-2016. I continue to write, but I no longer publish anything online, I closed my Facebook account, and I rarely comment on articles outside of NC, especially anywhere I have to give up a digital-ton of personal info and contacts just to say a few words one time.

    Goodness knows I do not worry a bit about fundamentalist Islamic militancy. Do I have any anxiety about jackbooted “law enforcement” mercenaries in riot gear and automatic rifles breaking down my door at the behest, basically, of the corporate/banking/billionaire, neoliberal/neoconservative status quo, my big mouth excoriating these elite imperialists, at the same time asset forfeiture laws are on the books and I can have EVERYTHING taken from me for growing a single plant of cannabis, or even having any cannabis in my house, or not, all they have to report to a complicit media and prosecutorial State is that I was growing cannabis when there was none.

    Of course there is little danger of that if I am not publishing, and hardly anyone knows I ever have, and no one currently is paying any attention.

    The fact in America at least is, as long as the status quo is secure, TPTB don’t really care what I write, as long as they do not perceive it as a threat, and the only way they would is if a LOT of people are listening…But still, there is nothing more terrifying on earth than America’s Law/Corporate/Bank/Privatized Military/Media imperialist State, chilling to say the least, evidenced in the extreme by a distracted, highly manipulated and neutered citizenry.

    1. fajensen

      The fact in America at least is, as long as the status quo is secure, TPTB don’t really care what I write, as long as they do not perceive it as a threat, and the only way they would is if a LOT of people are listening

      But, automated surveillance changes the equation by entirely, first by taking common sense out of the decision making process over sending SWAT round, putting someone on the no-flight- or no-mail- lists, or getting the FBI involved; Secondly by making it economical, scalable and practical to simply “score the disruption risk” of everyone, no matter how insignificant and puny the person / dissent.

      As the saying goes: “Lenin started small also, if ‘We’ can get the next Lenin, Millions will be saved!”

  7. Wukchumni

    “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”

    “If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain.”

    Adlai Stevenson

  8. shinola

    Siri? Alexa? Just volunteer.

    Orwell was prescient. It just took a bit longer & is more commercialized than he anticipated.

  9. Scott1

    I have been blocked in China which reduced my ability to bank the currency of fame so necessary to my success. As an independent scholar I need more of that fame currency so as to overcome my lack of credentials and distance from the academic institutions or the Washington Speakers Bureau.

    I have about been run out of town or blackballed post published stories or essays. Led me to say “If your writing doesn’t get you in trouble, you’re probably not very good.”

    I worked as a writer for a Canadian TV cartoon. Canadians do a lot of self censorship traditionally as a habit. It is why I love America more for its traditions of free speech.

    Where I live I am aware some of my judgements might mean a Trotsky type end. Southerners have a tradition of murder when exposed to concepts they don’t like.
    Tell them their ancestors died as traitors and fools wasting their lives in service of ideals that are failures, Stalinist before Stalin was robbing banks, and “Them’s fighting words.”

    Google reading my Gmail to find keywords for salesmen to use to send me advertising can be shifted around to empower the state to arrest me at a moments notice.

    The Bolsheviks made history disappear. Because of thought crimes we all commit, and the glee of psychopaths on the hunt anything can happen.

    I am my ideas.

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