November 13, 2013

Writers are censoring themselves for fear of the NSA, PEN study finds


In a study conducted by PEN American Center and the FDR Group last month, 528 PEN members were asked whether they avoid controversial topics in their work out of fear of government surveillance. The results were released yesterday: “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.”

What is everyone so worked up about? As long as you’re not using words like “sex,” “lacrosse,” “quiche,” “subway,” or any other of the thousands of words on the watch list, using a telephone on a regular basis, corresponding with business or personal associates via email, buying or, God forbid, publishing books, you should be fine!

According to the study, 28% of writers have curtailed or avoided social media activities, and another 12% have seriously considered doing so. Then 24% reported they had deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations, and an additional 9% have given this serious consideration. Of the group, 16% have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic, and 11% more have seriously considered it.

PEN says this substantiates the organization’s concern that “writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” In one writer’s words, “I assume everything I do electronically is subject to monitoring.”

They allowed members to write additional responses to the survey, and summed them up as follows:

Writers have struggled particularly with their desire to address issues such as “military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government.”

One person surveyed said he was afraid to talk to his local librarians:

“What would be the perception if I Googled ‘nuclear blast,’ ‘bomb shelters,’ ‘radiation,’ ‘secret plans,’ ‘weaponry,’ and so on? And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don’t know.”
More than one writer expressed concerns about communicating with colleagues in the Middle East:
“In preparing for the Translation Slam at this year’s [PEN] World Voices Festival, I Skyped [a] writer, a Palestinian who lives on the West Bank. I was tempted to ‘talk politics,’ since the West Bank was so much in the news, but I deliberately steered clear of the topic, figuring that our conversation was being monitored. I normally wouldn’t have skirted such an obvious topic, but I was concerned about keeping him out of trouble—thinking any controversial remark might make it harder for him to travel.”
We like to turn to writers to help us process this kind of news, and several news sources are linking to Melville House author William T. Vollmann’s article “Life as a Terrorist.” You might also check out his interviews, and his book An Afghanistan Picture Show, assuming you’ve finished rereading 1984.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.