— Daniel Drezner (@dandrezner) April 27, 2016
There’s a sub-branch of linguistics where the experts search for the words that don’t exist in a particular language — sometimes because certain subjects are considered too dangerous to speak of directly. From the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog, “New study: Snowden’s disclosures about NSA spying had a scary effect on free speech”:
….[I]t’s difficult to judge the effect of government-spying programs. How do you collect all the utterances that people stopped themselves from saying? How do you count all the conversations that weren’t had?
A new study provides some insight into the repercussions of the Snowden revelations, arguing that they happened so swiftly and were so high-profile that they triggered a measurable shift in the way people used the Internet.
Jonathon Penney, a PhD candidate at Oxford, analyzed Wikipedia traffic in the months before and after the NSA’s spying became big news in 2013. Penney found a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned “al-Qaeda,” “car bomb” or “Taliban.”
“You want to have informed citizens,” Penney said. “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.”
Even though the NSA was supposed to target only foreigners, the immense scale of its operations caused many to worry that innocent Americans were getting caught in the dragnet. A Pew survey in 2015 showed that about 40 percent of Americans were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that the government was spying on their online activities.
The same survey showed that about 87 percent of American adults were aware of the Snowden news stories. Of those people, about a third said they had changed their Internet or phone habits as a result. For instance, 13 percent said they “avoided using certain terms” online; and 14 percent said they were having more conversations face to face instead of over the phone. The sudden, new knowledge about the surveillance programs had increased their concerns about their privacy.
Penney’s research, which is forthcoming in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, echoes the results of a similar study conducted last year on Google Search data. Alex Marthews, a privacy activist, and Catherine Tucker, a professor at MIT’s business school, found that Google activity for certain keywords fell after the Snowden stories were splashed on every front page. Both in the United States and in other countries, people became reluctant to search for terrorism-related words such as “dirty bomb” or “pandemic.”…
The Wikipedia data suggest that the Snowden revelations had a noticeable impact on people’s Wikipedia behaviors, says Penney. “I expected to find an immediate drop-off in June, and then people would slowly realize that nobody is going to jail for viewing Wikipedia articles, and the traffic would go back up,” he said. “I was surprised to see what looks to be a longer-term impact from the revelations.”…
Of course people will find a way around the Forbidden Terms — people always do, whether it’s Siberian nomads referring to Grandfather (Bear) or devout Jews not speaking the name of their god — but wasn’t there a time when “Watch what you say, watch what you do” was righteously mocked as un-American?