Postscript to “Wild Eavesdropping: Observations on Surveillance, Conspiracy, and Truth in East Central Europe”
By Jonathan Larson
My 2017 article “Wild Eavesdropping: Observations on Surveillance, Conspiracy, and Truth in East Central Europe” explores how to write about a set of regional eavesdropping scandals against a backdrop of heightened international unease about abuses of surveillance technologies. As a “Directions” piece, the article sought to sketch an anthropology of eavesdropping as well as an approach to making ethnographically grounded claims about a scale of analysis that anthropologists have tended to cede to commentators from other fields.
The research for the article was conducted in 2014, and the manuscript was essentially finalized for publication (incorporating reviewer feedback) in March 2016. As I write this postscript in late 2019, I am struck by how much my own perspective on the topic has evolved due to what now feels like a sea change in public discourse involving leaked recordings, the deeper integration of expected and unexpected modes of surveillance into everyday lives, and whether any reporting about these developments should even be trusted. Although “Wild Eavesdropping” is grounded in observations about life in four countries of East Central Europe, it casts a comparative eye on the North Atlantic. Following other anthropologists of postsocialist Eastern Europe in the first decades after the collapse of Communist rule, “Wild Eavesdropping” found that contradictions observed in the application of Western political and economic models there provided grounds to critique the categories and suppositions that formed them (e.g. Boyer and Yurchak 2010). This postscript therefore not only offers some comments on how the situation in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia has evolved—it also considers a few aspects of digital politics in the U.S. and U.K. since 2016. Given how boundary-breaking “digital politics” are supposed to be (British journalist and historian Timothy Garton Ash 2016 has even gone so far as to argue that, as far as freedom of speech is concerned, we are all “neighbours” now, living in “cosmopolis”), how are shifting attitudes toward surveillance, theories of conspiracy, and ideas about truth influencing Anglo-American digital publics and perhaps a global mediascape?
The central puzzle that “Wild Eavesdropping” takes up is what I found to be the seeming lack of alarm about unregulated eavesdropping on public figures and leaking of embarrassing details gleaned from those recordings. Given histories of abuses by systems of state surveillance in order to suppress dissent, why did voters in first Hungary, then Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland respond with fury against those persons whose ostensibly “private” conversations were publicized without their permission, rather than against the means by which these recordings and leaks had taken place? I found evidence of a widespread distrust in sources of information traditionally considered more transparent (such as archives) and inclination to trust the hidden (such as conspiracy theories or illicit recordings) (see also Larson 2008). Since I completed the article, the political figures and the parties that became the subject of public scandal have remained de facto banished from the political landscape. Meanwhile in Slovakia, investigations into businessman Marián Kočner have been revealing the ongoing significance of wild eavesdropping (the leaking of secret recordings) as a form of political weapon there. The four countries have become the European center for populists storming the gates of parliaments. Douglas Holmes and Juraj Buzalka have argued that these political movements have built their influence and power with public arguments that explain cultural politics and the current course of history in terms of enigmatic inner truths (Holmes 2019). Georg Simmel’s observation from the first half of the twentieth century was an apt summary of wild eavesdropping in 2014—“the secret gives……a position of exception” (as quoted in Larson 2017, 344)—and has appeared to grow only more relevant in 2020.
Czech and Slovak developments tempt us to presume a creeping cynicism about the affairs of politicians and a tendency for a significant segment of the politically active public to brush off the erstwhile trusted evidence of recorded improprieties if done by their kind of leader. Such cynicism may be fed by a spiral of scandal fatigue, suggested for instance by the fading of the kind of satirical theater that emerged at the time of “Wild Eavesdropping” in response to various eavesdropping scandals (Larson 2017, 347-48). It is not difficult to discern a similar trend in U.S. public political discourse since the manuscript of “Wild Eavesdropping” was finalized in early 2016. The 2016 U.S. presidential election unearthed awkward Clinton campaign e-mails posted by WikiLeaks (after others hacked the servers) and Donald Trump’s past sexually graphic “locker room” talk from old recordings in his career in television. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, while strong enough to garner three million more votes than Donald Trump’s, lost crucial states where polls and interviews documented a critical number of voters more willing to shrug off recorded evidence of Trump’s violent misogyny than written evidence of Clinton’s shady business and organizational habits.
It goes without saying that this particular episode and its reception in a transnational history of wild eavesdropping warrants a much more complex analysis, including about ideologies of gender and language, as well as medium and language use (see e.g. Stolee and Caton 2018). Moreover, the story of wild eavesdropping in the Trump Presidency is not limited to electoral events. The Administration has been shot through with leaks of complaints, plots, and overheard conversations by administration officials and hired hands, from its first days to the recent Ukraine affair that threatened Donald Trump with impeachment. The early epidemic of leaks from the Trump White House revived the Turkish notion of derin devlet (the deep state), a mysterious cadre of career officials that serve as a kind of fourth branch of government capable of undermining the moves of the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. If wild eavesdropping has served as a political weapon in East Central Europe, a way to overthrow a ruling party or blackmail the judiciary (as the recent Kočner case in Slovakia has suggested), in the U.S. it has more recently been serving as an institutional check on executive power. “Wild Eavesdropping” points to the importance of studying mechanisms of disclosure as an important counterpart to surveillance in contemporary digital governance. Which anthropologists will join journalists’ studies of whistle-blowers (Lepore 2019) and cultural commentators’ studies of denunciation (Pollák 2016) to provide ethnographies of those who gather information in undetected ways, and then share it with intended audiences? Or does thinking about doing so cut a little too close to the bone of anthropological hermeneutics and ethics?
The introduction of the theme to this special virtual edition of PoLAR—“Digital Politics”— suggests contemporary uses of technologies by social movements and attempts by the state to neutralize them, but the period since “Wild Eavesdropping” was published has emphasized other actors and other, almost traditional or even Luddite, resources for activists. I would like to comment on a category of actors that seems increasingly critical to any consideration of wild eavesdropping in digital politics, as well as on two developments since the publication of “Wild Eavesdropping” that might serve as interesting examples from the European context of strategies that anthropological activists in the digital politics of disclosure might apply elsewhere.
First, in addition to a few categories of actors in digital politics that I have noted above—politicians and civil servants—the role of corporations has become impossible not to notice. “Eavesdropping” is now just a small slice of a rapidly expanding surveillance pie, many practices of monitoring, recording, storing, cataloging, and analysis are now integrated into the quotidian infrastructures of digital communication, and woven into what Shoshana Zuboff has characterized as a new form of capitalism. Zuboff’s recent The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in orienting themselves to the broader uses of personal data by tech companies through an ever-widening “Internet of Things” to study personal interactions and other behavior in order to influence them (as the Cambridge Analytica scandal clearly revealed). Still, Age is long on corporate research, and short on evidence for how different communities (especially outside of the U.S.) are aware of and acting on the “new” capitalist practices that Zuboff describes. While the book draws richly on a variety of theoretical perspectives, it falls to other scholars to explore what symbols, interpretations, and meanings have sparked a response in different communities (much as I noted in “Wild Eavesdropping” that metaphors of embodied, rather than abstract, surveillance may have been a potent resource for political critique in socialist Czechoslovakia). Nonetheless, well-established fears about ways in which surveillance can constrain free expression (see also Larson n.d.) or the conditions for more agentive thought and critical thinking (Larson 2013) are revived, even if actual effects on life around the world remain largely unmapped.
Mapping the emergence of other kinds of actors who have been thriving at the nexus of surveillance and disclosure might help orient anthropologists in a search for recent strategies that have pushed back on abuses of the potentially exceptional power of secret information. One European strategy that has emerged in response largely to the corporate subjects of Zuboff’s account of surveillance capitalism is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), legislation that took effect across the European Union (including the four countries of “Wild Eavesdropping”) in May 2018. The GDPR forces agents who collect, store, share, and process personal data to account for their actions by planning for responsible use and informed consent. The stated goal is to rein in unregulated collection and exploitation of personal data by corporations, as well as institutions of higher education, nongovernmental organizations, and others. The effects of the GDPR, including on anthropology (Yuill 2018), are still being observed. On the one hand, it may seem odd for this anthropological postscript in PoLAR to highlight a transnational agreement drafted by a heavily bureaucratic organization (the EU) as a potentially progressive resource for activists. On the other hand, this legislation was prompted by real grassroots complaints, such as about the right to be forgotten (the subject of a lawsuit against Google that received legal force in May 2014, while I was conducting fieldwork for “Wild Eavesdropping”) (see Lynskey 2016). It may be of great benefit for public debate if readers of PoLAR examined unforeseen challenges as well as affordances of this legislation, particularly as it is implemented and interpreted through different communities and national institutions.
A second strategy for digital activists seeking accountability from compromising evidence yielded by wild eavesdropping comes out of the continuing story in Slovakia. In March 2018, over six years after the leaked transcripts from the police wiretap code-named Gorila implicated some of the highest political officials in the country in corruption, frustration over the lack of an indictment or prosecution proved potent fuel for public protests over the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. The protests not only burned long and brightly enough (in a peaceful way) to prompt the resignation of several top political figures, but subsequently powered the election of 45-year old single mother, environmental lawyer and anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputová as President of Slovakia in late March 2019 (I ask readers under what circumstances they think something similar could be conceivable in their respective countries). This startlingly progressive turn in a part of Europe that has more recently become known as the harbinger of “illiberal democracy” rolled into the surprising victory of anti-corruption progressive forces in the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament. Where other movements against the impunity of financial elites (e.g., 2011 Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. ) or elite indifference to economic inequality (e.g. 2018-2019 Yellow Vest Movement in France) have seemed to run out of gas or even turn reactionary (as in the cases of Germany and Italy), how did Slovak indignation over the evidence coughed up by expected recordings not only endure, but take a progressive grass-roots turn?
Space does not allow much analysis, and I would encourage those who wish to read more to consider forthcoming commentary on the subject in Anthropology News (Makovicky, Larson, and Buzalka forthcoming). Here, I will merely summarize what seems to have been the key ingredient with one word: slušnosť. Slušnosť can be glossed as “decency” or “humaneness.” As Makovicky et al. describe, slušnosť has lingered in Slovak vocabulary since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, most recently mobilized as a rallying cry against the murder of the journalist Kuciak and the unresolved crimes suggested by the transcript of the Gorila wiretap. Slušnosť is an awkward ethnographic concept for anthropologists to embrace: it has a rather conservative, petit bourgeois, and even racist side. Yet such a concept pulled enough people into the streets and into digital political engagement over such a sustained period that it has swept in startling, if incomplete, changes to a Slovak political scene grappling with wild eavesdropping’s various revelations.
In closing, I would point to what one reviewer of Age of Surveillance Capitalism has found is a need to “help scholars refine questions of where politics takes place in a world shot through with digital disclosure” (Morgan 2019). To the extent that politics is now shot through with the vectors, voices, and revoicing of digital disclosures, the goal of “Wild Eavesdropping” to “unpack eavesdropping within an anthropology of surveillance” (343) has now been overwhelmed by the number of questions and answers that could be posed. That a recent Slovak edited volume (Pollák 2016) with several keen observers of local culture and politics could focus on the historical role of forms of udavačstvo (denunciation) in Slovak society, without wading far into matters of digital politics, may be a harbinger of developments in other places. When we all gain the power to watch, read, and listen in on audiences who may or may not expect the consequences, and ourselves become watched, read, and listened in on through channels we may not have expected, should more discussions about the politics of unexpected observation and disclosure in a digital age not take place?
Jonathan Larson is Associate Director of the European Union Center at the University of Illinois. His book, Critical Thinking in Slovakia after Socialism (University of Rochester Press, 2013) was translated into Slovak in 2017 (Kalligram). Recent work has been on censorship, shifts in area and global studies, and notions of “the field” in the internationalization of higher education. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Ethnos, and Critique of Anthropology, as well as several edited volumes.
I wish to thank two audiences at the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, as well as one at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, in March-May 2019 for many helpful comments on presentations that sought to update my original article. The foundation for this postscript was laid in dialogue with these audiences and their invaluable perspectives on both the scandals that I studied for this article and what has unfolded since. I also thank Deborah Michaels, insightful former colleague and Central European specialist, for more recent conversations.
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