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New Media, NSA and Snowden’s Revelations

How and why do the majority of governments build a coercive apparatus to regain control over media?

A History of Mass Communication

By Taysir Mathlouthi

The French philosopher Michel Foucault says about the State and its security drift that “power and knowledge directly involve each other; that there is no relation of power without a correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor of knowledge which does not presuppose and constitute at the same time relations of power(1). Thus, it is not trivial that the American journalist Glenn Greenwald refers to Foucault in his book No Place to Hide (2014) in which he talks about the revelations of Edward Snowden(2). The current issue of personal data collection and interception, and the increasingly visible conflicts of interest between mass media and governments, make us rethink the fact that we live in a democracy. In 2009, Lyn Gorman and David McLean, in their book Media and Society into the 21st Century: A Historical Introduction, explain how the process of globalization has allowed the development of new media and vice versa. But they also go on to say that this development has been made possible with the deregulation of financial markets and the increasingly lesser control of governments. 

The aim of this analysis is to show how the American government built a coercive apparatus to regain control over new media and mass communication even as many researchers and political scientists claimed that the advent of new media was the end of Nation-State as we know today. We support the idea that these coercive devices are not intended to combat a potential external enemy such as terrorism, but that it aims to control the global civil society, including American citizens, to limit social movements and protests; and to prevent potential revolutions. Citizens are no longer sovereign. These mechanisms of coercion are set up with the complicity of large corporations and mass media who seek more to satisfy their own interests than those of the nation. There is therefore a transformation of the State into a hybrid of private and public actors. Even researchers, such as the political scientists Zygmunt Bauman and Didier Bigo, explain that the revelations of Edward Snowden prove that the nation-state is not in decline; on the contrary, it is strengthening day by day. This reinforcement is not only due to alliances  the governments or the nation-states set up with private companies known as GAFAM(3), but also by creating transnational guilds. These guilds are an alliance between mass media, corporations and governments(4). This is particularly what Henry Jenkins refers to as convergence, a term that Gorman and McLean use in their work.

Historical and media context

In 2020, we are celebrating the 31st anniversary of the birth of the Internet, a tool that has profoundly revolutionized our societies. The advent of new media is probably the biggest change in our societies in terms of data production. The Internet is now a global virtual space that is used to build alliances between different actors in the global civil society. In particular, we can build social movements that can have local, national and transnational dimensions. A recent example of this can be the ‘Yellow Vests’ in France, a movement that was born through Facebook, thanks to a change of algorithm on the site that gave preference to put forward the publications of contacts of the user to the detriment of advertisements or certified pages. Before the Internet, awareness campaigns about social movements were spread through mass media and this was therefore narrowly monitored, controlled and quite often censored by governments. The Internet has created cyber activism that scares governments as they cannot control everything. The Arab revolutions of 2011 might be the most striking examples of recent years. But it is also important to note that social networks and the Internet have not replaced the conventional mass media. On the contrary, these social networks have had a wider echo since they have aligned themselves with mass media. And mass media have also adapted themselves to this new tool, for example by creating continuous news TV channels and creating new channels of communication through social networks and websites.  

That is why Gorman and McLean chronicle the creation of Internet by explaining that some considered it as a utopia that was finally realized: “Enthusiasts have claimed transformative impacts: new media are seen as liberating and democratizing, empowering citizens, promoting equality and tolerance, global understanding, and a global civil society.” But others had quickly felt the excesses that could result: “Critics argue that the extent of change has been overstated, that their impact on politics has been slight, that they have a dominant role in the dominant role of big business (…)”(5) Thus, new media are what we can define as pharmakon, which in ancient Greek means both the poison and the remedy. And the flow of our data through the Internet is a double-edged sword: we have access to what we do, but other people also have access to it. This is due to the fact that, at the beginning of the Internet, Nation-States had some difficulties in regulating and controlling new media. That is why they asked the corporations to do it instead. “The reduction or elimination of traditional institutional and legal barriers – or the capability to simply bypass them – facilitated the spread of global media.”(6) We still see this today with, for example, the new draft law of the Council of the European Union to entrust the centralization of censorship on the Internet to the GAFAM; in other words, all websites will be forced to follow the pattern of Facebook and Google by copying their monitoring tools and censorship(7). Nevertheless certain state actions have inhibited globalization, for example the bans on Internet software, harassment of global civil society activities, and discouragement of transnational capital flows. Therefore, we are facing a technological revolution which is constantly evolving, and we do not yet have all the keys of understanding it and all the consequences that it can cause.  

Thus, the aspect that perhaps best illustrates the rapid evolution of new media and globalization is the fact that, written only about 10 years ago, Gorman and McLean’s book is already on several points in total shift with the reality of the world of 2020. For example, the distinction between “real” and “virtual” has not been used for a while now because we have completely internalized new media and Big Data as an integral part of our world, and even more, as significant regulators of this world. Also, it is interesting to study this book, Media and Society into the 21st Century: A Historical Introduction, in parallel of the Snowden case because it allows us to not only see how much these revelations have an impact on the way we think of new media, but also on the fact that the dystopia that the authors described as a possible drift,  has taken place now. Nobody questions the advent of the Internet and the fact that it has been an important development for the emancipation of the global civil society. Nevertheless, since Snowden, we have been probing further the problem of our individual freedoms. That is why we need to find a way to legally regulate new media so that it does not serve businesses and governments but rather serve citizens. And it is particularly through the books and films written and made following the revelations of Snowden that the debate continues to persist on the political scene.

Edward Snowden explained that he thought – like most people – that with the election of Obama, transparency – the nerve of any democratic regime – would be put back in order because George W. Bush’s presidential terms were totally focused on ‘war on terror’ and security issues. But what is striking is that the Obama administration had actually been more intrusive than its predecessor and that alliances between mass media and government were more prominent. The national and international image of Obama’s administration was one of a totally democratic government, serving its citizens and being against all forms of coercion. And this idyllic image was finally thought of by the government with the help of the media. Thus, Glenn Greenwald explains that the democrat newspaper, The New York Times, was so virulent about the Snowden revelations because it had very close ties with the Obama administration: “There’s nothing extraordinary about this kind of media collaboration with Washington. It is routine, for example, for reporters to adopt the official US position in disputes with foreign adversaries and to make editorial decisions based on what best promotes ‘US interests’ as defined by the government.(8) Indeed, in his book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), Noam Chomsky, – an American linguistics’ professor, an intellectual and a political activist, explains that those who direct the media keep saying that their editorial choices are based on impartial, professional and  objective criteria. But it turns out that the powerful are able to impose the plot of speech, to decide what the people have the right to see, to hear or think, and to “manage” the opinion with propaganda campaigns. Chomsky writes his analysis by dissecting the media discourse and explains that this speech is conceived thanks to several filters which make the propaganda invisible. Thus, we cannot rationalize it, andany person who claims that this propaganda exists can be described as a ‘conspirator’. According to Chomsky, this is all within the goal of the consent process: to not allow opponents to have precise tools or concrete evidence of propaganda. What is interesting is that Chomsky teaches linguistics and therefore has the keys to understand the legitimacy of violence of government propaganda through discourse. And Snowden’s revelations give these tools to the entire population. That is why these leaks have jostled the international community so much.(9)

Chomsky’s analysis can therefore be applied to the discourse on Snowden’s revelations and more precisely on Greenwald’s work: He explains that there appeared a shift of meaning between the word journalist and the word activist. A journalist who seeks to be independent, who assumes the fact that total objectivity does not exist but that his work aims to objectify his remarks is now seen as an activist and therefore as an enemy of national security(10). His position as a journalist was delegitimized by its own colleagues because he positioned himself as a counter-power. The media discourse plays on the fact that opponents who challenge the government for more transparency are on the side of the terrorists. This factory of consent finally creates antagonisms but does not allow anyone to be in an “in between”. However, Greenwald reminds us of the theory of the “fourth estate” which is key in this case because its goal is to ensure government transparency and provide a check on overreach:

But that check is only effective if journalists act adversarially to those who wield political power. Instead, the US media has frequently abdicated this role, being subservient to the government’s interests, even amplifying, rather than scrutinizing, its messages and carrying out its dirty work.”(11)
Glenn Greenwald

There is an important scene in Oliver Stone’s film, Snowden (2016) based on Snowden’s story: when Edward Snowden’s boss, then in the middle of the hunt, tells him “Most Americans do not want freedom, they want security (…) Secrecy is security and security is victory. (…) Where is the modern battlefield soldier?” And then Snowden responds Everywhere.” The use of the term “secret” is key in this passage because it calls into question the very foundations of democracies and Western sovereignty. Since the people are sovereign, they must not be servile. The government is supposed to serve the people and not the opposite. This is also what Edward Snowden says in Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour (2014), where he says that he decided to reveal those leaks so that the people can have all the keys in their hands to really decide the society they want. This brings us back to Foucault: thanks to knowledge, one has power. And governments try to make sure that citizens have as little knowledge as possible so that they can never come to power.

Democracy requires accountability and consent of the governed, which is only possible if citizens know what is being done in their name. The presumption is that they will know everything their political officials are doing, which is why they are called public servants, working in the public sector, in public service, for public agencies. Conversely, the presumption is that the government, with rare exception, will not know anything that law-abiding citizens are doing. That is why we are called private individuals, functioning in our private capacity. Transparency is for those who carry out public duties and exercise public power. Privacy is for everyone else.(12)
Michel Foucault


In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘global village’ to illustrate the new mass media situation, where especially television would create shared frames of reference and mutual knowledge between people across the globe(13). But we could say that today, the object that designates ‘global village’ even better is the Web. The purpose of this tool was to bring about horizontal sovereignty. However, the oligarchs who own the mass media and the governments have made sure to control it as much as possible, to maintain a vertical domination. Snowden’s revelations thus prove with verified facts that there are interstitial links between those who govern us and those who promulgate information to us. These revelations allowed us to no longer be seen as conspirators and to prove that the people we elected are not here to serve us but to serve their own interests. Moreover, the greater concentration enables the accumulation of extensive interests in newspapers, TV channels, film industry, social networks and so on by a single global corporation. That is why having independent journalists is crucial to a real democracy. As a result of these revelations, an online news publication was created independently to continue to allow whistleblowers to disclose information for the common good. This newspaper, The Intercept, has major journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill (another eminent journalist who had alerted citizens of US war propaganda in Afghanistan and Iraq). In sum, those who govern us were afraid that a transnational social movement could be born so they did everything to intercept it, but these revelations only add to the will of the global civil society to stand up against the oligarchs.


1.  Foucault Michel, Discipline and Punish (Surveiller et Punir), Paris, French Edition : Gallimard, 1975

2. Greenwald Glenn, No Place to Hide. Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the Surveillance State, London, Hamish Hamilton, 2014, p. 141

3. GAFAM : Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft

4. Bauman Zigmunt, Bigo Didier, Esteves Paulo, Guild Elspeth, Jabri Vivienne, Lyon David, Walker Rob. “After Snowden: Rethinking the Impact of Surveillance” in Culture & Conflits, December 2014, p.133-166 

5. Gorman Lyn and McLean Daniel, Media and Society into the 21st Century. A historical Introduction, 2nd Edition, West Sussex, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 230

6.  Ibid, p. 267

7. La Quadrature du Net, European Government agree to outsource Internet censorship to Google and Facebook , 2018

8.  Greenwald Glenn, No Place to Hide. Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the Surveillance State, London, Hamish Hamilton, 2014, p. 155

9. Chomsky Noam, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, 1988

10.  Greenwald Glenn, No Place to Hide. Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the Surveillance State, London, Hamish Hamilton, 2014, p.146

11. Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, New York NY: Pantheon

12. Ibid. p.141

About the Author:

Taysir Mathlouthi holds a double bachelor’s degree in political science and cinema from the University of Paris 8. She is currently a master’s student in transnational relations, war studies and cinema at Paris 8 and Paris-Sorbonne. Interested in security studies, she uses the research-creation method to link the visual arts to transnational relations issues.

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