The NSA PRISM Leak, Edward Snowden, and the Online Response

george-w-obama

The leak of PRISM, the NSA’s online surveillance program under the Obama administration, currently has internet users around the world in an uproar. Originally reported by the Guardian with the aid of whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the PRISM leak along with several others have mobilized internet privacy activists like never before. In fact, in Snowden’s interview published in the Guardian, he drew attention to a movement gaining traction on Reddit called Restore the Fourth Amendment, which is now planning public protests across the U.S. on July 4th. There is also a “We the People” petition to pardon Snowden up on Whitehouse.gov that has received over 27,000 signatures, along with a predictably vast array of humorous critical responses that have popped up online. Early on, a hilariously biting image morphing Obama’s face with George W. Bush’s appeared on the homepage of the Huffington Pteam edward snowdenost and quickly went viral. As for the response on social media, CNN has a good roundup of the funniest tweets mocking Obama and the U.S. government regarding PRISM, while Buzzfeed has compiled some of the Snowden-related memes that have appeared in the last few days.

It is becoming clear that the PRISM leak and Snowden’s perceived heroics will reverberate online for a long time to come. This is because the story itself concerns the ability of internet users to communicate freely, in this case without fear of government intrusion. As the PIPA/SOPA movement from last year demonstrated, internet freedom-related issues are particularly amendable to viral politics, as legions of netizens are inspired to use the very technologies in question to mount a defense of their digital rights. Scholars and activists who are interested in the political uses of social media should pay close attention to the online anti-PRISM and pro-Snowden efforts in the weeks (and perhaps months) to come, since they may serve as a model for how political protest movements are orchestrated in the digital age more broadly.

That being said, I’m still unsure of what the long-term effects of this online response will be. While we may very well be at a tipping point in terms of internet privacy becoming a major global political issue, the fears about PRISM and the U.S. government’s online spying are still speculative in nature. The Obama administration continues to claim that these tools are only used to stop dangerous terrorists, while critics who worry about abuses of power are left making sometimes-hyperbolic ‘what if?’ comparisons to Orwell, Stalin, and the Stasi in order to drum up popular outrage. What we still don’t have yet is a ‘smoking gun’ that clearly shows a program like PRISM being used in an abusive manner, such as against the administration’s political opponents (i.e. along the lines of Watergate). If and when such a story emerges, we can expect movements like Reddit’s Restore the Fourth Amendment to really take off.

Laughing Off the Threat: “The Internet” Takes on Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong Un Parody Buzzfeed 1

In the past few weeks, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has been dominating international headlines with his repeated saber-rattling, and the story has gone on to inspire a vast amount of internet parody memes. Buzzfeed recently published a big roundup of the funniest examples, while Know Your Meme has been tracking the “Hungry Kim Jong-un” set of memes for a few months now.

Kim Jong Un Parody Buzzfeed 2

The title of the Buzzfeed article, “The Internet is Really Not Afraid of Kim Jong-un,” is particularly interesting from my perspective. Here, “the Internet” is framed as a singular entity – one that is characterized by the derisive humor of Reddit-style meme culture. Obviously, this sort of activity only constitutes a small fraction of the online discourse that is currently taking place around the North Korea issue (some of it “high-minded,” some of it “low-minded,” and much of it in between), and yet somehow it comes to stand in for the whole. Of course, humorous memes are the bread and butter of a site like Buzzfeed, so it’s unsurprising that they would focus on this specific facet of what the internet has to offer. It just seems to me that this sort of reductionist talk about “the internet” is becoming more and more common as of late (as in the AV Club’s “Great Job, Internet!” feature), and it would be wise to take a step back and appreciate the breadth and variety of online political discourse. After all, “television” is not just late-night comedy monologues (the obvious precursor to these sorts of memes), so why is “the internet” so often painted as merely a factory of flippancy?

That being said, I would refrain from labeling the Kim Jong-un memes as “bad” discourse, political trivialization, etc. As scholars of mediated political satire like Jeffrey P. Jones have shown, this sort of seemingly-frivolous humor can enliven the public sphere and bring new entrants (particularly young people) into the realm of civic participation and citizenship. Indeed, it is rather heartening that the meme-spreaders of “the internet” are tackling the latest developments in international politics in addition to the usual repertoire of cute cats and celebrity gossip. While it might be merely laughing in the face of serious global tensions, these memes are getting people to think and talk about issues that they may have otherwise ignored. Great job, internet, indeed.

– Joel Penney