What if Snowden had been seen as a freak

Hans-Martin Tillack of the German STERN magazine said in a Safety Break User conference on June 18:

“that the first revelations on the NSA were already out before [Edward Snowden’s] interview and that they were important.  But after his video interview with the Guardian everyone could see that he was no weirdo but a concerned citizen and that this stressed the impression in the public that he was to be taken seriously.”

This points to the rhetorical distinction between what is said and how it may come across.

Tillack deals regularly with safety break users and emphasizes: “I have always judged information by its own value no matter who presents it to me. And I will continue to do so.” However, for many people the rule applies: Snowden had to be presented as serious before he passed the test for taking him serious. What if Snowden had made a weirdo impression, as impression only ? Wouldn’t the world have missed out on this debate ?

The other members of the panel apparently agreed with this diagnosis – at least they didn’t protest. The audience of some 100-150 people didn’t protest either. If my recollection is sound then I actually heard some people sighing “yes” too – but this might be imagination since I wanted to hear “Oh no !”. (Indeed, I had a hearing problem that evening, and thank Tillack for correcting me on his precise quotation.)

The rhetorical problem is troublesome. I am inclined to regard people who take tests on people’s behaviour as weirdo’s themselves. I am a scientist, trained to look at content. It doesn’t matter how you look or how you speak. When I deal with you then I listen to what you say. Your words are tested, and I am not testing whether you are serious enough to listen to or talk with.

A journalist preferably takes that attitude too. However, many a journalist has to make money from speaking with you. Whether you are to be regarded as serious or not will matter for the story and the proceeds. A story like “Mad Hatter Says NSA Bugs You” has a different flavour and market value than “$erious $nowden $hows N$A $ecrets”. I now include the $-signs that normally are suppressed in the actual headlines.

Panel member Yves Eudes of the French Le Monde argued that news isn’t free and that people ought to go back to actually paying for it. This actually got a round of applause. In my perception science isn’t free either, but you pay for research and education, with professional standards that ought to give you value for money. I am critical of science and education, but I don’t feel that we should replace it with the free market. I have serious doubts about the media that operate in the free market. As explained before, a “free press” isn’t necessarily a “quality press”.

Garrett Robinson (SecureDrop) showed his idealism and Alison Glick (GAP) showed her professionalism, all rather relying on donations and endowments than on paid circulation. They completed the panel of an International Safety Break Users Conference – also known as Whistleblowers, (English) Amsterdam June 18, with moderator Teun Gautier of Free Press Unlimited.

I skip the slides for past and present and jump to the Questions regarding the future:


Left to right: Gautier, Robinson, Tillack, Glick, Eudes, Amsterdam June 18 2014

Some points:

  • Better speak about “safety break users” rather than “whistleblowers”. A safety break is intended to be used in case of emergency, and safety break users normally don’t want to have the attention that a whistle gives.
  • Scientists are supposed to speak but can get censored. Safety break users are commonly supposed to be silent but speak up. The mechanisms of social exclusion are somewhat the same. The media will regard you as a freak and you have to do an exam before you might be treated as a decent human being again.
  • There is too much attention to the Snowden issue. His story sells well and is easy money for the media. The media should focus on the difficult stories and explain those to the readership. This will enhance the climate also for Snowden.
  • The Iraq war still is a case in point. Patriotism killed media criticism. But George W. Bush announced the attack already a year before patriotism went high. There had been ample time for countervailing information.
  • Internet and other information technology have all kinds of weaknesses, that are intentionally left there so that the NSA can use it. It is better to get secure software. However, we do need the NSA and surveillance. Thus we also need laws to deal with privacy and (inter-) national security.

I have my doubts about this evening but perhaps some elements were helpful to make some steps forward. Importantly, the participants hadn’t heard before about the idea to boycott Holland, and some now have.


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