What’s Stopping U.S. Writers from Fighting NSA Surveillance?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

By Edward Nawotka, with report coverage by Dennis Abrams

NSAPEN America has issued a report whose title says it all: “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor” (PDF).

Among the findings:

PEN writers now assume that their communications are monitored, which prompts writers to self-censor their work in a number of ways, including a reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects; a reluctance to pursue research about certain subjects; and a reluctance to communicate with sources, or with friends overseas, due to worries that they will put them at risk by doing so.

  • 28% of those surveyed report that they have avoided social media activities, and another 12% say that they have seriously considered doing so.
  • 24% say that they have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations, while another 9% have seriously considered it.
  • 16% admit that they have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic, while another 11% have seriously considered it.
  • 16% have held back from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that could be considered controversial or suspicious, while another 12% have seriously considered it.
  • 15% have taken extra steps to disguise or cover-up their digital footprints, and another 11% have seriously considered it.
  • 3% have declined opportunities to meet (either in person or electronically) people who might be deemed security threats by the government, while another 4% have considered it.

As the report’s introduction states:

“Freedom of expression is under threat and, as a result, freedom of information is imperiled as well. Fully 85% of writers responding to PEN’s survey are worried about government surveillance of Americans, and 73% of writers have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today. PEN has long argued that surveillance poses risks to creativity and free expression. The results of this survey – the beginning of a broader investigation into the harms of surveillance – substantiate PEN’s concerns: writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.”

One surveyed writer wrote:

“The codification of surveillance as a new ‘norm’ — with all different forms and layers — is changing the world in ways I think I fail to grasp still. And one of the things I’ve learned through repeat visits to another country with a strong police/military presence is what it feels like to not know whether or exactly how you are being watched due to some categorization you might not even know about. This is of great concern to me, the sense that this condition is spreading so rapidly to different nations now – or perhaps more accurately: that the foundations are being laid and reinforced so that by the time we fully realize that we live in this condition, it will be too late to alter the infrastructure patterns.”

But here’s the question — and perhaps a challenge — if writers are concerned about the surveillance, are they doing enough to counterbalance it? In a recent Podcast on Longform.org, the writer Gay Talese lamented the toothless-nature of the Washington bureau of the New York Times and lamented the lack of an anti-government or adversarial stance by the Times in general. The implication was the the press was allowing the government to muzzle it.

Writers are not powerless to fight back and protest. Self-censoring is not the answer by any means. While the numbers cited above may appear alarming — it also suggests there is another side to the story.

For example, how writers are doing something to fight the urge to self-censor, who are willing to take the risk and act bravely to pursue stories they deem important, to get behind the obfuscations, and to shed light on the shadows and illuminate the darkness.

A not-insignificant part of being a writer is the willingness to be brave. You have only to hold yourself responsible for continuing to live in the dark when you have it the means within yourself to shed light.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.