SXSWi 2014: Glenn Greenwald on Social Media, Surveillance and the Purpose of Journalism

greenwald-sxswSXSW attendees packed into an Austin Convention Center exhibit hall earlier this week to hear from a guest who wasn’t even in town — editor and journalist with First Look Media’s The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald.

Widely known as an associate of Edward Snowden, a former government employee who leaked hundreds of documents on the NSA’s surveillance program, Greenwald was invited to discuss his work and the future of democratic journalism via Skype. In his virtual conversation with Personal Democracy Media editorial director Micah Sifry, Greenwald was his usual unabashed, passionate self expressing his thoughts on the power of social media, government surveillance initiatives, constitutional rights and his role as a journalist:

On social:

For a man who is busy trying to expose what he believes are great injustices to the American public by reporting from all over the world, Greenwald is a pretty active Twitter user. And as the former Guardian writer said Monday, he’s a fan of the platform. “I actually do think it’s a really good medium.” Referring to social as the “biggest difference between today’s online journalism and establishment journalism,” he said its best benefit is that the availability of reader feedback it provides “keeps you honest.”

“I do think online interaction, unpleasant and annoying as it may be, is a really important form of accountability,” Greenwald said. In the old days, legacy media reporters and columnists “were completely insular people who spoke to the world in monologue form … to passive readers. Now, if you are a journalist, you’re going to constantly hear from people … who have a lot of important things to say.”

On mass surveillance:

Whether you think Greenwald is anti-American for enabling Snowden’s stolen government docs to be shared online or believe him to be a brave, old-fashioned muckraker, he is clearly on a mission — to encourage public participation in encrypting their digital communications and to push for policy changes through his reporting. “The [NSA  is] very adept at instantly turning [the web] into further tools for [its] own power,” he said. As a result, he said he “operate[s] encryption tools to a pretty advanced degree” when sending files back and forth between media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, or his colleagues at the Intercept, a niche online journalism venture that reports solely on NSA revelations.

Greenwald said he uses encryption for this very reason: “I’ve seen definitive evidence … that my communications are being collective monitored and surveilled.” And, journalists aren’t the only ones who should be worried about their personal online privacy, he says. The mass surveillance state won’t change unless the tech community makes encryption tools more user-friendly. “I think it’s very easy to dismiss, in general, threats to civil liberties if you personally aren’t affected,” he said. Still, said Greenwald, “Individuals do have the principal obligation … to safe guard their communications. If you’re really upset about what the NSA is doing, the question should then be as an individual, what should I do to stop them?”

In case you weren’t clear on what exactly Greenwald deems most problematic in the NSA’s surveillance initiatives, he laid it out at SXSW: “In very narrow cases, the things that [the NSA does] can be kept secret. For private individuals, everything that we do should be private. That is how a healthy, balanced democracy functions. We have radically reversed that.”

So, what happens once the Intercept gives us the information we need, and the veil over the NSA’s programs is fully lifted? Greenwald is fighting for policy reform and more government oversight of mass surveillance, but he says that’s not where the issue ends. “Even reform, genuine reform, is really a very small part of the picture. I actually think the most significant parts of this story extend far beyond surveillance,” he said, while not sharing specifically what he thinks is most significant. Still, he opined on what he thinks of the Internet’s role in providing information, leveling the playing field for less-educated citizens and its potential for being a catalyst for democracy.

“The internet can be an incredibly liberating and democratizing force. It can level the playing field,” he said, or it can serve as “one of the most oppressive instruments of human control ever known.”

In the meantime, we must wait for Greenwald’s Intercept to report what they know about mass surveillance. He says he has read every single document he received from Snowden and has done “roughly” half of the journalism he intends to share. “Many of the most shocking and significant stories haven’t been reported,” he said.

On journalism:Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 3.27.25 PM

Though he’s using complicated technology to complete his work, Greenwald went back to the basics when discussing the art and practice of journalism. “You need to make certain your reporting is very factually reliable.”

But unlike the days when legacy media loyalty called for reporters to reserve their biggest scoops for their employers, Greenwald says he’s proud of the way the Guardian (and now, the Intercept) didn’t hog the story. “There are dozens and dozens of journalists who have worked with lots of Snowden documents,” he said, because he has felt the entire time that “the obligation is to the story and not the institution competitively.” By sharing his knowledge and materials with multiple (but vetted as trustworthy) outlets and individuals, Greenwald says the goal is to “maximize the impact. That has been crucial to not just engaging Americans [with the NSA story], but the world.”

What is Greenwald’s tireless reporting all for, though? What does he hope to gain from it?

“I basically see journalism in pretty simple terms. The purpose is to shine a light and expose that which the most powerful … factions” are doing, he said to the Austin audience. “The more of that I’m able to do, the more successful I’ll think we will have been.” Citing fearlessness, independence and an aggressive approach, Greenwald said he won’t quit until he sees change, calling it his “primary metric” for success.

His comments on being a part of Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar‘s foray into digital news media underscore his overall feelings toward the failings of old journalism.

“Pierre said he wanted to create something new. He wanted to find a way not to take journalists and put them into some homogenized hole … but give them the tools … to bolster the independence in their journalism … without any constraints beyond delivering facts,” Greenwald said. Referring to traditional newsroom deficiencies, he said First Look and the Intercept “intend to make diversity a huge factor,” even in its 12-person masthead.

Greenwald said he has personal goals beyond winning awards and being highly regarded in the journalism industry. The real purpose of his journalism?

“We have a broader obligation as individuals … to make the world a better place.”