When it’s more than a meme.

Towards the end of 2017, a new meme started popping up around Twitter and Tumblr with the premise of users directly interacting with the government agents surveilling them. And I’ll admit, at the time I found them pretty funny. It seemed to be the nihilist, “everything sucks so we might as well make a joke out of it” millennial humor that I thrive on. I have definitely retweeted a few of them here and there. And while I occasionally thought to myself, “This kind of seems like something we should be doing something about rather than making jokes about it, this is not okay,” I also mostly wrote it off, thinking, “Well, if they want to watch me watch Dance Moms clips for three hours, it’s no big deal.”

However, in this class, I have realized what a big deal that could be. Because while the NSA watches me watch Dance Moms, they are watching leakers and journalists and whistleblowers and possibly keeping them from getting stories out there that need to be published. And at that point, it is much more than a meme: it’s people’s livelihoods and the state of society. How to keep that from happening was the subject of part of our readings this week from Journalism After Snowden edited by Emily Bell and Taylor Owen.

Now I don’t know if I am going to want to go into investigative journalism after graduation, but this reading made one thing clear – if I do, I need to read up on cyber security because I knew very little about the programs and systems discussed. PGP, Signal, and OTR were all completely new terms to me. But if I want anything to be secret – whether that’s journalism conversations or my obsessing over fictional characters, these are the best weapons I could have.

One point that stood out to me, particularly when the book discussed Edward Snowden, was the difference between Snowden as a source and most other sources. In most cases, the journalist will be the one with more cybersecurity knowledge, not the source. This creates inherent problems in that leakers may be less likely or less able to want to take the proper security steps in order to speak to journalists. Luckily, since these programs have become more accessible post-Snowden, it has become easier to work with people’s lack of cybersecurity knowledge. But the lack of awareness – or the fact that people are aware, but don’t care, makes a journalist’s work even harder.

To the average person, making memes like this might just be a way to cope with feeling like surveillance is inevitable. But by taking steps outlined today, both journalists and citizens can take active steps to fight against it.

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