Communication Currents

Edward Snowden as Hero or Villain—What’s in a Name?

October 1, 2015
Freedom of Expression

Nothing points to the importance of naming more than instances in which we seem unable to agree upon a name. In our naming interactions, we create meaning, understanding, and a future. But in the case of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, U.S. society has been unable to finalize a name for his June 2013 decision to release classified NSA documents. Since that day, stakeholders such as politicians, government officials, and media commentators have been debating whether Snowden’s choice to disclose the documents should be viewed as “heroic” or “villainous.” Should he be deemed a “hero” or “whistleblower” who is attempting to protect U.S. democratic ideals by revealing how the NSA surveillance programs threaten free speech and privacy rights? Or should he be considered a “traitor” or “felon” whose actions jeopardize the U.S. democracy by publicizing secret NSA activities and increasing the country’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks? In their talk about how to name Snowden, the politicians, officials, and commentators not only are trying to make sense of Snowden’s actions, but they also are creating a broader social context that may influence how the U.S. public responds to Snowden’s message and how U.S. courts interpret First Amendment rights in the future.

The U.S. government has always had to balance the need for data collection about potential threats and operational secrecy to maintain national security with the need for governmental openness and transparency expected in a democracy. Since the events of 9/11, the balance has leaned toward increased governmental surveillance and secrecy and decreased free speech and privacy rights as necessary for protecting the U.S. democracy against terrorist threats. However, Snowden believes this stance is actually harming the democracy rather than protecting it. This belief led him to release secret NSA documents showing that the agency has been collecting data on the general U.S. public, an action he argues has exceeded the agency’s authority and violated the public’s First and Fourth Amendment rights of free speech and privacy. By disclosing the documents, Snowden is attempting to modify the balance by making the public aware of the NSA’s surveillance work so it can make informed decisions, as expected in a democracy run by the people, about whether the NSA activities should be permitted. The classified documents raise the question of whether the NSA’s foreign and domestic surveillance activities are protecting or threatening the foundations upon which the U.S. democracy is built.

But rather than debate that question as Snowden perhaps had hoped, politicians, government officials, and media commentators instead have been focusing on what name to give Snowden. His actions have also challenged their beliefs about how people named as “intelligence agency government contractors” should act. These security clearance holders are supposed to limit their free speech to protect government secrets, an expectation that Snowden’s behavior has violated. As a result, these stakeholders have been attempting to make sense of Snowden’s actions by naming him either a “hero/whistleblower” or “traitor/felon.” Naming him will give meaning to his actions, suggest how U.S. society should respond to his behavior, and create a future for Snowden.

An analysis of media interviews and articles shows that stakeholders who argue Snowden should be called a “hero” or “whistleblower” create that name for him by emphasizing in their talk how Snowden has sacrificed his own needs to protect the U.S. public from a threat that could hurt the U.S. democracy. If the U.S. public adopts this name for Snowden, then it should respond positively to Snowden’s actions and praise them. Furthermore, naming Snowden a “hero” increases the likelihood that the public will listen to his message that the NSA surveillance programs are harming free speech and privacy rights. Also, in talking about Snowden as a “hero” or “whistleblower,” the politicians, officials, and commentators are creating a context for U.S. courts to shift the interpretation of the First Amendment away from the current one that values government secrecy and national security to one that promotes openness and transparency as the best way to maintain the U.S. democracy.

However, stakeholders who believe Snowden should be named a “traitor” create that name for him in their talk by claiming that Snowden is seeking personal gain or fame by revealing secrets to terrorists or enemy countries that could harm the U.S. democracy. Similarly, those who view Snowden as a “felon” emphasize in their talk how Snowden has violated an employment or security contract and stolen and released classified documents that could harm the United States. From this point of view, the public should respond negatively to Snowden’s actions and condemn them. Additionally, categorizing Snowden as a “villain” increases the chance that the public will ignore his message and maintain its current belief that increased government surveillance is the best way to protect the public interest. In this version of naming Snowden, the politicians, officials, and commentators are creating a context for U.S. courts to maintain the current trend of valuing national security secrecy over free expression and privacy rights.

In the two years since Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA documents, U.S. society has yet to agree upon a name for him. Public opinion polls show that the public remains divided between calling Snowden a “hero” or “villain.” In June 2015, some provisions of the Patriot Act expired, including one that allowed the NSA to mass collect the U.S. public’s phone records. Some suggest that Congress allowed this to happen as a result of Snowden’s heroic actions. Others, however, say Congress dropped the programs because they were ineffective and believe Snowden is still a villain. In all, the politicians, government officials, and media commentators are still talking about how Snowden should be named rather than debating the more intricate free speech-national security balance questions that Snowden’s disclosure raises. Snowden’s disclosure has yet to change a social context that favors government surveillance and secrecy over openness and transparency and a more limited interpretation of First Amendment rights.

About the author (s)

Susan Opt

James Madison University

Associate Professor