Investigating surveillance and journalism

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Ligaiya Romero, a photographer, filmmaker and scholar who covered the protests spread in the US following the death of George Floyd, was quoted in a recent letter from the Authority Collective. She says:

“As photographers/filmmakers, we need to ask ourselves, is this image sousveillance (from the bottom pointing up, holding power-holders and oppressors accountable) or are we furthering surveillance (from the top pointing down, adding to a history of violence and surveillance of Black, Indigenous, and POC bodies, and creating a document that can be used to further that violence)?”

These words speak volumes about the complicated relationship between surveillance and journalism.

Surveillance is a word that (re)gained popularity in recent years. Scandals like Cambridge Analytica or Edward Snowden’s revelations on the NSA spying on the American people hit the headlines, sparking debate everywhere.

The Orwellian idea of surveillance as an enigmatic and disturbing presence that puts our lives under control is still strong in our heads (and with many reasons for being so!). However, surveillance allows our society to exist in its current shape. Can we imagine a healthcare system that works without data collection and constant monitoring? Hardly so, even if it is an exercise we will have to engage with, sooner or later.

Technology is a dominant force that shapes everything, including how surveillance is performed. The increasingly expanding internet and the presence of billions of cameras, phones, drones and hundreds of other tools for (in)visible data collection are shaping our world. However, not everything can be explained by the changes introduced by the evolution of our technologies. In Covid times, isn’t the pandemic emergency pushing forward controversial technical solutions to our needs and fears, like tracing apps? Technology shapes society, but ongoing social phenomena shape technology as well.

Journalism cannot be immune, of course. In the era of what some scholars hailed as the “surveillance society”, journalists are still bound to their duty to protect their investigations, their stories, their sources and ultimately themselves from the peering eye. In order to do so, they need to be tech savvy, develop sharp awareness, reach out financial support, obtain legal protection.

However, the question that Ligayia Romero poses is a fine example of how the relationship between surveillance and journalism is far from being simply the clash between the right to inform and the attempt to cripple it, and journalists are not just vulnerable targets of surveillance. They also actively participate in the surveillance mesh that covers the world. They use powerful intelligence gathering tools and software in their daily activities, they surf the web hunting for news, and they contribute to the circulation of a vast amount of information. Are they aware of their position and the dynamics that this position implies? What role can or should deontological and ethical standards play?

To further complicate the scenario, journalists and citizens are not distinguishable as they used to be. Tools and solutions that once belonged to the exclusive domain of the newsrooms are now available to almost everyone, from the blogger uploading leaked information to the dark net, to the influencer with millions of viewers on social media platforms. So when I mention journalists, I do actually talk about ourselves and the billions of phones, computers, platforms and other resources we use to collect and circulate information.

This is where my research journey started from.

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