Are young people the vanguard of political action, or have they been jaded by years of crass consumerism and popular culture?
When the leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed warrantless, secret government surveillance of U.S. citizens’ phone and Internet records—including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats—Noam Chomsky surmised that younger people were less “offended” than older people by the privacy intrusion. In a Guardian article, he called this attitude a generational issue that “someone ought to look into.”
Younger people, he warned, are “much less shocked” at being spied on by the U.S. government than the older generation, “and did not view it as such a problem.”
He said: “It may have to do with the exhibitionist character of the Internet culture, with Facebook and so on. … On the Internet, you think everything is going to be public.”
Well, there is absolutely a generation gap when it comes to issues of freedom of information, the NSA leaks, and scandal in general—especially online—but it’s not necessarily what you might expect. The lack of an “OMG” attitude over the U.S. government’s mass-scale privacy intrusions stem from much more than a general air of nonchalance about technology.
It’s true that as a generation younger people are inherently more comfortable and dependent on technology—we type our credit card numbers into websites without much inquiry, and we share some of our deepest secrets and private conversations wirelessly. The general predilection is that these are necessary risks of the technology age. We’ve grown comfortable with the risks, almost to the point that they don’t feel risky anymore.
However, ease and exhibitionism online in general does not indicate blasé over perhaps the most astounding, far-reaching government intrusion on the privacy of individual citizens ever to occur in U.S. history.
I’m not sure where Chomsky gleaned his impressions but, according U.S. polls, 18-35-year-olds are oftentimes more supportive overall of Snowden’s leaks than older generations. Perhaps Chomsky failed to recognize that it’s one thing not to be shocked, and another entirely not to be “bothered.”
In some ways the younger generation is jaded because their foray into adulthood has been tainted by scandal, lies, and disappointment at the hands of the system at large. When a millennial says they aren’t surprised by this latest wrongdoing, believe them.
That doesn’t mean they’re not distressed.
As a CNN/ORC International survey released June 17 shows, president Obama’s approval ratings fell by eight points following the NSA leaks, including a 17-point decline in support from voters under 30. In a Pew Research Center report, forty-five percent of Americans ages 18-29 said personal privacy trumps intrusion, even if that limits the government’s ability to investigate possible terrorist threats. While 45 percent isn’t quite a majority, it’s a far greater percentage than any other age group.
Additionally USA Today poll shows members of the younger generation are more likely to disapprove of the government’s collection of data than the older generation. Sixty percent of young Americans support Snowden’s leaks, while just 36 percent of people age 65 and older are in support.
Problems of a Millennium
Millennials, myself included, came into maturation post-9/11 alongside the Patriot Act, and with George W. Bush blundering speech after speech, telling lie after lie, as the face of U.S. politics. Our adult world has forever been on the brink of disaster thanks to climate change, perpetual “terror” threats, economic turmoil, elusive weapons of mass destruction, peak oil and other frights we inherited from generations before us. As captured in an animated “End of the World” flash video that went viral in 2005, ours is the age of unlimited information and imminent apocalypse. It is in vogue, and even natural, to respond with an “I’m not surprised” attitude.
But, while the younger adults of this nation may not report feeling shocked over this latest in a lifelong string of systematic disappointments, as a generation we support and cultivate whistleblowers, and we certainly favor freedom of information.
The two go hand in hand; if you’ve already suspected the government of spying on you, of course you’re happy when someone exposes those misdeeds.
Peter Levine, director of Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, said younger people tend to have a greater distrust of government than older people, and according to the USA Today/Pew Research Center poll, young people, more than older people, overwhelmingly believe Snowden’s leaks serve the public.
However, the Pew Research Center report also shows that the younger generation does not read the news about the NSA leaks as closely as the older generation, reporting that 33 percent of Americans age 50 and older are following the news of the government tracking phone records closely, compared with just 12 percent of those aged 18 to 29.
Perhaps this tendency of the younger generation not to follow any single issue particularly closely has to do with the fact that our generation is, in a word, overwhelmed. We’ve entered adulthood amidst harbingers of doom and piles of debt. We are the generation set to inherit a plethora of problems, the scope of which no generation before us has faced in the head-on way that we do because information has never been so accessible and constant.
We are the generation behind the Occupy movement, and as that movement revealed (before it was squashed by the powers that be), the deluge of problems we face stems from a system that is rotten at the root. Rather than jump into panic mode when yet another gaping systemic betrayal is revealed, we’ve apparently chosen to err on the side of apathy.
That said, it is important to acknowledge that we are in several ways an activist generation. The three big whistleblowers to emerge in recent years — Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange — are ages 25, 29 and 41, respectively, and as mentioned above, we helped spur Occupy and spread terms like “the one percent,” and “the 99 percent” into mainstream dialogue.
Privacy vs. Transparency
The question remains, if people 35 and under are a generation that is savvy and aware of the darker side of the sociopolitical system, why are we also the generation most ready and willing to make public our personal experiences and information? Why do we embrace social media and wireless technology, even when companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, etc. are openly mining our data and sharing user information with their advertisers? Facebook even claims to own everything we upload, and all of these companies have openly claimed the rights to our information in their terms of service agreements.
It comes down to an issue of transparency rather than privacy. While the younger generation may be more gregarious about personal information than the last generation, they still hold governments and institutions accountable to disclose their privacy intrusions. In the case of social media and other online platforms, the sale of personal information is not as appalling because everyone who uses those sites has the ability to know what they’ve signed up for — it’s written in the security agreement.
Conversely, the NSA’s Prism has not been transparent about what it is doing. The NSA is spying and stealing information—under wraps until Snowden blew his whistle on the massive intrusion.
The long term will likely reveal the more permanent impacts of Snowden’s leaks.
This month the Guardian interviewed the founder of the world’s biggest marketing services company, Sir Martin Sorrell, who said he believes revelations about the NSA’s Internet surveillance program are “a ‘game changer’ that will spark a fundamental rethink of web privacy by web users.”
He said Prism is so important that even young people, who tend toward a cavalier attitude over what they put online, are likely to become more concerned about Internet privacy.
“I think it is a matter of great public interest,” he told the Guardian. “I think even amongst under 35s, people will become very concerned about privacy.”
April M. Short is a Bay Area journalist focusing on social justice reporting.