I saw Citizenfour this week, the new Laura Poitras documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations. It’s a momentous, chilling piece of film making that shines a glaring light on the disturbing folly that’s become of the US in the post-9/11 world. The hours of raw footage that Laura filmed throughout the week she and Glenn Greenwald first met Ed are intimate in a way that makes you, as a viewer, feel like you are part of the history that unfolds on the screen.
And that’s what struck me most about Citizenfour. The historical relevance of the Snowden revelations not only lies with the truth that he chose expose about the government, but also in the way he did it. It was the way he partnered with Glenn and Laura to curate the release of state secrets, and to do it in a way that they could maximize the impact of the truth and trustworthiness of his actions.
But as anyone who follows the work of Glenn and Laura knows, they aren’t ordinary journalists. They are part of a new crop that reject the ideal of objectivity in journalism—a farce, I believe, that only works to hide the inevitable subjectivity, the motives of the presenters and the producer of the news story. And they are overt about their motive: to shed light on the truth and to expose the dangers of unchecked state power in an effort to inspire change.
To Glenn and Laura, it may have first been surprising, but also strategic to help Ed show his face to the world. In the film, they make it seem as though their main motivation for doing this was for his safety. Making him known to the public makes it much more difficult for any powerful entity that felt threatened by him to snuff him out. He was a guy who did this for the sake of the greater good, not out of some egotistical need, some narcissistic urge. By presenting him as the heroic individual that he is, they were able to ensure that the public would stand by him and his action. What they don’t say is that his publicity would, and likely already has, inspire others to follow his lead as a government whistleblower.
The thing about fighting power is that the powerful do an excellent job of hiding their motivations from the public. In the cases where the policies themselves are carried out in secret, talking about the secrecy itself is enough to rile the public and undermine their faith in their government. Secrecy is a major way they’re able to get away with these policies, but it’s also their greatest weakness. When their actions, and especially their objectives, are revealed to the public, their legitimacy shrivels up along with the faith and trust people had in them.
For activists, our strongest ally is the truth. But sadly the truth alone isn’t sexy enough. The truth can be dry, non-compelling, or confusing. Governments, corporations, and other entities of concentrated power invest a huge amount of their energy in the optics of their actions. When it’s a matter of public opinion, they’re adept at hiding even their most heinous acts by using lofty justifications or simply relying on the fact that the mainstream media won’t report it. Too often it’s because these stories are just too tedious to unpack for the viewers. As John Oliver said to describe the net neutrality fight, whether on purpose or by function, those in power have figured that “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”
Which gets me back to Citizenfour and its potential to add a new wave of energy towards significantly reforming mass surveillance. What the global fight for digital privacy, and really any issue in social justice issue needs, is better storytelling. Stories are what inspire people. Stories are what frame big, complicated, boring issues in a way that humanizes them and makes them tangible for people. No matter how much something warrants newsworthiness because of its impact and relevance for people’s lives, it won’t resonate with them, and they won’t care about it unless they can see the narrative and place themselves within it.
We especially need stories at a time when things are seriously broken. Democracy is a joke. Corporations make and break the rules they want. And meanwhile the government is doing more and more to persecute and silence journalists and individuals who are fighting to fix the system. What Laura does with Citizenfour is tell Ed’s story, to show why a modest, every-day person would put their life on the line for the public-interest, and how they can, alone, put a giant wrench in a powerful, corrupt, and seemingly unstoppable system.