Governmental surveillance of the lives of citizens

1984 to Now: Fiction Becoming Reality?

In the 2016 film Snowden by Oliver Stone, illegal governmental surveillance of the lives of private citizens via digital means (such as ordinary computer webcams) disturbs the film’s hero, a dramatized representation of real-life whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden ultimately rebels against the government agency that employs him as he rejects the totalitarian principles that govern the agency. Indeed, the film touches upon a reality that has troubled not just Snowden but many people. The reality has been described by Paul Rae as the combination of “massive infrastructure, lightly regulated intelligence behemoths, and large corporations seeking to realize value by consolidating mind-boggling amounts of information to identify patterns of behavior” (335). Collecting “big data” is the goal of these entities — and Orwell foresaw it all more than half a century ago when he wrote 1984: he even put a face and a name to the big data rich Establishment — Big Brother. Today, Big Brother is applied by the common public with such casualness that the controversial aspect of surveillance and the violation of privacy laws barely registers — or so it seemed until November 8, 2016.

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With the recent election of political outsider Donald J. Trump to the Office of the President of the United States, the anger of the public regarding governmental and corporate overreach and corruption may have reached a tipping point. If Trump and the movement he represents can be taken as an indicator of something disturbing happening in society, the question this research paper aims to answer locates at least of portion of this disturbance within the specific field of media law. The question is this: Are loopholes in media laws and increasing media consolidation transforming our society into an Orwellian dystopia? The answer to this question could help to explain what we are witnessing today in our own socio-political realm. Trump has vowed to crush Big Media consolidation (the most recent proposal being the AT&T-Time-Warner merger) because such mergers are viewed as a “threat to freedom” (Yousaf, Rahman 23). The hypothesis this paper puts forward is that the U.S. is indeed making Orwell’s novel 1984 more realistic than he could have ever predicted: loopholes in media laws, increased consolidation, infringement on privacy rights, and heightened sensitivity within the nation is taking freedom away from citizens and giving ultimate power to the government, as though the nation truly were dystopian.


To answer the question, a content analysis is performed of contracts from Xbox, Sony, Apple, Dell, and Facebook, along with secondary research examination of similarities between the novel 1984 and modern society, statistics of declining literacy rates, increased surveillance cases, surveillance usage via X-Box Kinect/Computer Webcams, slang-shortened terms being added to dictionary over the last decade, etc. from articles, journals, online databases, and editorials from electronic newspapers.

For the purposes of this paper, dystopia is defined as citizens turning a blind eye to government corruption, thinking they still possess all of their freedoms and constitutional rights, when in reality, they do not.

Journals and articles were searched using Google Scholar. Keywords included: “surveillance state,” “slang dictionary,” “literacy rates,” “new media mergers,” and “illegal surveillance.” Contracts of the major media corporations were searched by including the name of the company with “user contract.”


The typical contractual clause for usage of the products of the major corporations (Xbox, Sony, Apple, Dell and Facebook) is as follows: “[the service/product] is offered to you conditioned on your acceptance without modification of the terms, conditions, and notices contained herein. Your use of the [service/product] constitutes your agreement to all such terms, conditions, and notices. The [service/product] may also contain additional terms that govern particular features or offers” (“ Terms of Use”). A statement on privacy and personal information collected then follows, with clauses explaining that “cookies” are used to collect browsing history data, data from third parties, and user reports — and that the data is shared with third parties. The user may object to the contractual obligations and refuse to give up his or her privacy rights claims — but doing so will prevent the user from enjoying the product/service offered by the company. Contingent upon using services and products by these new media producers is the giving up of privacy rights claims.

Loopholes in media law allow corporations to gather data on users within the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations specifically in spite of the FTC’s position as the “most influential regulating force on information privacy in the United States” (Solov, Hartzog 583). These loopholes are taken advantage of by corporations that sell gather and sell big data to other corporations seeking to gain an advantage on consumer information in the digital age of marketing. New media has essentially created a new arena in which information on user history, practices, and profiles is as valuable as gold. That regulatory bodies like the FTC should allow corporations to handcuff users regarding their privacy rights by essentially compelling them to agree to terms of usage or forfeit their right to use, suggests that the regulatory bodies facilitate the aims of the corporations while putting on a guise of regulation for the public. The existence of lobbying groups, which put pressure on legislators and regulators and which help to finance the political careers of many, further indicates the Fascistic nature of modern government in the U.S., as Phillips-Fein observes in “The Business Lobby and the Tea Party.” The mere existence of political groups like the Tea Party or the body of voters that elected Donald Trump into office signifies that there is a social reaction to the overreach and corruption of media entities exploiting consumer demands for private gain in violation of privacy rights. This social reaction, moreover, indicates that a dystopian society is in place but that a movement among disenfranchised citizens is apparently underway to redress these concerns.

At the same time, literacy rates in the U.S. are abysmal when compared to the rest of the world. As The New Yorker reported, the United States scored “second to last” in “literacy among sixteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds” according to the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills from participating countries around the world (Cassidy). A decline in educational standards is in keeping with dystopian narrative projected by Orwell: the proles of his novel are an uneducated class that clings to its simple pleasures and is not capable of organizing in order to threaten the rule of the Party. Winston Smith, the hero of the novel, attempts to organize — but plays into the trap of the Party and is subsequently tortured into accepting the Party line and doctrine at the end of the novel. The current situation in which more than 50 million Americans organized to elect Donald Trump into office is far more than Winston was ever capable of doing. Whether or not these voters are playing into an equally devious trap on the part of the Establishment remains to be seen: as it appears now, the U.S. is dystopian in terms of effects — but anti-dystopian in terms of action.

Increased surveillance cases, however, indicate that there is a still a wide gap that action must bridge — if it is even possible. The Snowden film illustrated the extent to which increased surveillance has overtaken the U.S. Moreover, Sudha Shetty observes that “efforts by Congress to engage in meaningful oversight have met with mixed results” — or, worse, “have been fruitless” (69). And as Ian Brown notes in his study “Social Media Surveillance” published in The International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, “companies are required in many jurisdictions to provide law enforcement and intelligence agencies with access to the data” that the companies collect on users.

In terms of the flow of information and how information is controlled in society by the handful of major media corporations (effectively a monopoly on news), Yousaf and Rahman point out that “the corporate media controls the news media which otherwise should be the place of criticism and discussion of media policy in a free society. The track record is that the corporate media uses their domination of the news media to serve their own interest in many countries” (26). All of this is consistent with the Orwellian vision of 1984: a society that is captivated by big screens spewing Party-line doctrine, whose content is controlled by Big Brother; the failure of the law to actually be fair and impartial or to care about privacy rights; the fruitless and sterile oversight of the various bureaucratic organizations meant to regulate society but that in reality simply serve their own purposes; the omnipresent, watchful eye of the State — or of the corporation (which shares everything with the State): all of this is characteristic of a dystopian society. Citizens turn a blind eye to it because a) the TV tells them that everything is as it should be (at least, it did until the evening of November 8th, 2016, saw the talking heads and pundits of mainstream television media networks stunned and speechless at the unexpected reality of Trump winning the election). Even the adoption of slang terms by the English dictionaries is in keeping with the dystopian vision set forth by Orwell: as Zhou and Fan note, “The vocabulary of slang changes rapidly: what is new and exciting for one generation is old-fashioned for the next” (2210). This is completely in keeping with the development of Newspeak, pushed by the Party in 1984 — the replacement of words: Orwell captures the ideology of the Party perfectly when he reflects their sentiment thus: “it’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words” (Orwell 65). These findings indicate that the dystopian world exists — but only partially. For as this paper defined dystopian, that state depends upon the ignorance of the citizens to the reality of the situation. While this may be true for a number of citizens who do not care or prefer not to think about the reality (like Winston, pre-awakening or post-torture), there is another segment of society that is aware and is organizing and acting: these are like the proles — but with the ability to exercise their will and impact the future — so it seems.


In conclusion, this study found that the hypothesis put forward at the beginning of the paper was only partially true. Dystopian conditions certainly exist in the U.S. as evidenced by any number of characteristics: from the illegal or “loophole” surveillance tactics of government agencies like the NSA to the collection of personal/private data of digital/new media users (information that is then sold to other businesses or entered into databases that facilitate spying on citizens). The failure of education (low literacy rates — near the lowest in the world, in fact, among developed nations), and the control of information by a select few media corporations are further signs of an Orwellian society.

However, there are indications that the U.S. is not as dystopian as these signs appear to indicate. In 1984, Winston Smith attempts to break free from the grasp of Big Brother: he attempts to organize and join a movement that will bring down the Party. He fails: the movement he joins is a trap; he is taken to Room 101 for re-education (torture) until he finally breaks and submits to the will of the Party — to “loving” Big Brother. In the U.S. this situation does not seem to be presenting itself — at least not for the 50+ million Americans who voted to reject the Orwellian State so commonly referred to as the Establishment. The 2016 presidential election has indicated that there may be more life and fight left in the American public than Orwell envisioned for his ultimately broken hero.

At the same time, it could be a trap. It could be that in participating in the election, these same Americans were agreeing to the terms and conditions of the 2-party system, not realizing that the choice they thought they had was really just the illusion of choice. The contract that Microsoft, Sony, Facebook et al. “offer” to the public in order to use their services/products also presents the illusion of choice: the reality is, though, that there really is no choice at all. If users wish to be “connected” they must hand over their privacy rights — otherwise they will not be able to play the Xbox in the manner for which it was designed. They will not be able to use social media and connect with friends and colleagues. It could be that O’Brien is standing behind President-Elect Trump, waiting to cudgel the movement back into submission. The most that this study can show is that, for the time being, there does appear to be a movement against the Party and therefore against the dystopian signals that characterize society.

Works Cited

Brown, Ian. “Social Media Surveillance.” The International Encyclopedia of Digital

Communication and Society, 2014. Web. 11 Nov 2016.

Cassidy, John. “Measuring America’s Decline in Three Charts.” The New Yorker, 23 Oct

2013. Web. 11 Nov 2016.

Orwell, George. 1984. Web.

Phillips-Fein, Kim. “The Business Lobby and the Tea Party.” New Labor Forum, vol.

23, no. 2 (May, 2014): 14-20.

Rae, Paul. “Lawfuls Espials? Edward Snowden’s Hamlet.” Theatre Journal, vol. 68,

no. 3 (2016): 335-355.

Shetty, Sudha. “Surveillance, Secrecy, and the Search for Meaningful Accountability.”

Stan. Journal of International Law, vol. 51 (2015): 69-93.

Solove, Daniel; Hartzog, Woodrow. “The FTC and the New Common Law of Privacy.”

Columbia Law Review, vol. 114, no. 3 (April, 2014): 583-676.

“ Terms of Use.” Microsoft. Web. 11 Nov 2016.

Yousaf, Muhammad; Rahman, Bushra. “Media Freedom for the Loudest and Powerful

Media Owners: Neo-Liberalism a Threat to Media Freedom?” Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, vol. 22, no. 2 (Autumn, 2014): 23-44.

Zhou, Yanchun; Fan, Yanhong. “A Sociolinguistic Study of American Slang.” Theory

and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 3, no. 12 (December, 2013): 2209-2213.

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