Creating Technology for Social Change

Applying Decoding Models to Privacy Issues

How do we find the hegemonic viewpoint surrounding mass surveillance in America? President Obama introduces the issue in a speech: “At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the “The Sons of Liberty” was established in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere.” The mentioning of Paul Revere is important. He appeals to legitimacy by immediately framing the issue in a historic context, and associating with it a prominent heroic figure of American history. He continues tacitly justifying the current situation, and takes note of “potential for abuse,” but then takes a particularly enlightening turn, relaying that “here is an inevitable bias not only within the intelligence community, but among all of us who are responsible for national security, to collect more information about the world, not less. So in the absence of institutional requirements for regular debate — and oversight that is public, as well as private or classified — the danger of government overreach becomes more acute. And this is particularly true when surveillance technology and our reliance on digital information is evolving much faster than our laws.” His speech then tumbles into obscurity, only to specify that the rules were approved by the secret FISA court.

Hall talks about how his framework of thinking about communication fits well into how television communicates. As someone witnessing this speech on tv, I can be a dominant-hegemonic viewer, and accept that these government agencies benefit Americans, assuming the cultural thought is that of assuming our government workers will be managed in a way that protects us the most. We can come close to analyzing wether or not we think that most people think in that framework when they listen to the president by looking at peoples’ views on the issue itself, but it must definitely be noted that these are not the same thing. Pew Research has done a large amount of research on this, and found in their results that 93% of participants thought that “being in control of who can get info about you” was at least “Not very important.”

This shows us that there is a high likelihood that many people listening President Obama’s words would take a negotiated stance while ingesting it. Notably, “Just 6% of adults say they are “very confident” that government agencies can keep their records private and secure.” The negotiated reader can acknowledge that intelligence agencies want more access to information to improve their work, but view the media as a human with experiences that tell them that they are not “very confident” that another agency of humans can secure their important information. Anecdotally, many people could think back to a moment when they were growing up, and told someone a secret that eventually got out.

Pew’s research also points to the possibility a significant population that takes a oppositional view when listening to the President. It is noted that 31% of responses said they were “Not at all confident” that records of their activity will remain private and secure by government agencies. If Snowden could release information about secret and important government happenings, then surely a breach of citizens’ private information is not out of the question, as it has already happened to government employees in the database at the Office of Personnel Management.

Changing the subject a bit, it is interesting to note that President Obama does vaguely state that a hypothetical person that did the things that Edward Snowden did would cause issues to our national security. He hints at the peculiar way that Snowden releases the statements: “Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light.” In a way, he is likening Edward Snowden’s actions to releasing tactical media.

This is a very interesting proposal, but there is definitely validity to it. Tactical media, in my view, was distinct from strategic media because instead of taking spaces to create influence, tactical media opens spaces for possibilities to emerge. This is exactly what Snowden has done, whether it has hurt our security or not. Snowden releases the media slowly, and that makes it so we can spend more time debating individual issues as they come up, instead of them all coming up at the same time, burning, and blowing over all at once. Every time Snowden releases more information, it opens the space of possible things that the public can think about when it comes to internet security.

Obama says it “often shed more heat than light,” and it is this heat that becomes an opportunity for people to debate something that was outside of the public view. It is also humorous that he chooses to heat (public reaction) to light because Snowden’s revelations have literally shed light on an issue that was previously in the dark to most, even to Congress. In class we used NewsJack to build phony websites that reflect what we would want our hypothetical front page to look like if things go our way. My hypothetical New York Times front page has a collection of headlines that would make me trust my privacy more if they were real. I think the possibilities would shed light on the deeper issues, and turn down the heat.