What Silence Quietly Says: On The Chilling Effect & Strategic Silence

The Post-Snowden Chilling Effect

Did you know that after the Edward Snowden incident, Google searches on terrorism-related topics went down?

“Oh really?”
After the initial surprise, you say: “Huh…I guess that makes sense. People are afraid that Big Bro will be watching over them if their search results have something to do with security – at least that what Snowden tells us.”

Fair explanation. You smile as your surprise at the fact turns into joy of understanding. But hold on – would you be surprised to learn that Google searches on health-related topics also went down?

That’s right. The Snowden incident made people concerned about privacy at large, and thus they refrain from searching about one of the most private topics – personal health. This is an example of the Chilling Effect:

[A] chilling effect is the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction.

Wikipedia

P.S. No pun intended, I find it amusing and easy to remember the Chilling Effect by thinking: post SNOW-den => chilling effect. Of course you feel the chilling effect post Snow-den, n’est-ce pas? 🙂

Silence As A Strategic Choice

Related to the Chilling Effect is the concept of Strategic Silence:

Strategic silence is when you punish perspectives that you don’t like by not reporting them.

– Eric Weinstein, Thiel Capital, on The James Altucher Show podcast episode #472: “How to Question the World Around You and Find Your Core Theories (2)”

The difference between the Chilling Effect vs. Strategic Silence is on why it is being used – the Chilling Effect is motivated by self-protection, to reduce influence of the outside world; whereas strategic silence is motivated by a drive to maximize control on group-think. Chilling Effect silences the individual and distances self from group; Strategic Silence attempts to silence the group and insulate themselves from (what is perceived to be) opposing tribes.

Straegic silence, deployed at scale, erects ideological siloes and discourages clash of ideas. Eric Weinstein thinks the US society is going through “an epidemic of badly-determined strategic silence”:

We are strategically silent on all sorts of things that the country cares about and doesn’t hold crazy positions on…somehow a group of people want to say that if you even mention restricting immigration in the US, I want to be able to infer that the only reason that is true is because you’ve got a black heart.

– Eric Weinstein, Thiel Capital, on The James Altucher Show podcast episode #472: “How to Question the World Around You and Find Your Core Theories (2)”

Private vs. Public Discourse

Amy thinks of something to say. She decides where & how to say it – keep it to herself? Text a friend? Post a YouTube video?

Every day, each of us makes seemingly “simple” decisions as Amy: I think of something, how publicly should I express it? And these individual decisions compound into a sizeable impact – how lively is the public discourse? How tolerant is society of diverse or “unconventional” opinions?

On one hand, we see privacy-focused products surfacing, e.g., DuckDuckGo browser, Signal messaging app. On the other hand, we don’t want people to run to these products as sanctuaries, as a result of the Chilling Effect; we don’t want the majority to abuse strategic silence and society is left with one and only one “politically-correct” narrative.

The pendulum continues to swing between private vs. public discourse. Let us hope it strikes the appropriate balance.