Posted: March 18th, 2023
motif of surveillance features prominently in Captain America: Civil War. More importantly, the film features the ability of a powerful state entity to control the behavior of its citizens. The types of surveillance and brainwashing depicted in Captain America: Civil War are completely different from those used by the American government. However, the methods of surveillance used by the American government to spy on its own people may be no less sinister. The methods of surveillance used by the government cannot directly control peoples’ minds and behavior of individuals, but can control other dimensions of the daily lives of citizens. Captain America: Civil War can be viewed as a metaphor and warning to Americans about the extent, purpose, and meaning of government surveillance in daily life. The film can also be instructional, showing that Americans can empower themselves against encroaching infringements on their rights.
Because Captain America: Civil War is a superhero movie, it does not address the genuine legal problems that surveillance and brainwashing raise. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution addresses surveillance by providing the right to privacy to all American citizens. The government is prohibited from unreasonable searches and seizures according to the Fourth Amendment, and that clause refers to searches and seizures of information, not just of property (Slobogin). There are many types of surveillance that the founding fathers would not have anticipated when the Constitution was ratified. Of course, the most obvious type of surveillance that the founding fathers would not have anticipated is Internet and other digital types of surveillance. In fact, one day in the future it could be possible that the government could engage in more insidious and technologically advanced methods of surveillance that include the ability of direct mind control and manipulation, as depicted in Captain America: Civil War.
There are three main types of surveillance, according to Slobogin. The first type is the classical style of spying on people. This type is known as physical surveillance. The second type of surveillance in common use is communications surveillance, which includes wiretapping and any other “real time interception of communications,” (Slobogin 3). Finally, transaction surveillance refers to the monitoring of activities after they have occurred, such as when the government might review phone records or bank activities. This type of information may be used for a range of state missions, from evidence gathering for federal investigation against pornography and human trafficking or to monitor financial transactions of suspicious organizations. The latter type of surveillance is not always perceived of as surveillance, but it is still information gathering and must be accomplished within the provisions of the Fourth Amendment for it to be deemed constitutional. Technology has made each of these three types of surveillance easier, and emerging technologies are bound to make future surveillance even easier than it is already.
In addition to technological advancements in surveillance that make it easier for the government to spy on its citizens or its enemies, the American government has also stretched the Fourth Amendment in the name of counterterrorism. Since September 11, public opinion has tacitly or even explicitly supported increased government surveillance in the interests of monitoring potential terrorist activities domestically (Slobogin). The expanded powers of the federal government over the past few decades have meant that the government has the potential to intrude into the daily lives of people more than ever before. Combined with the advancements in surveillance technology, the power of the government could even become as great as it is demonstrated in Captain America: Civil War.
Americans who resist surveillance or resent it have little recourse except to refrain from public activities entirely. However, one of the best ways to refrain from exposing oneself is to avoid volunteering personal information when using the Internet (Dinev, Hart, and Mullen). The only other means to resist unlawful surveillance is to ensure that civil liberties organizations like the ACLU remain well-endowed and able to protect the rights of citizens. Most Americans would agree that some government surveillance is necessary and desirable in the interests of national security and would gladly sacrifice a small amount of personal privacy in the interest of protecting the country. However, few Americans would agree to allow the contents of their minds be made public, really or symbolically through monitoring of individual social media accounts. What the government views as being “unreasonable search and seizure” under the Fourth Amendment might be defined differently from the common person, which is why civil liberties organizations make a determined effort to work with legal teams to protect the rights of Americans. The judiciary has, as a result, been called upon increasingly to rule on individual cases. Emerging technologies demand each case be heard differently, because from year to year hardware and software considerations will change. Legislation also changes, often in favor of the government and its expanding powers of surveillance. Some legislation may redefine what specific activities a government entity is allowed to do to gather information.
Interestingly, there are other ways of monitoring human behavior and even brainwashing as shown in Captain America: Civil War. Surveillance is only the tip of a large iceberg of rights erosion. For one, marketers collect purportedly anonymous data and usage statistics from customers and members of social media sites. Whenever a person uses a social media site, he or she surrenders a little more privacy. Registering for any website means placing one’s email address, at the very least, on a list that can be populated and cross-referenced with other lists. On the surface, such information gathering is harmless. On the other hand, a person’s personal habits, daily schedule, lifestyle, purchasing decisions, and a host of other information can be cleaned if access to that email were compromised. Technology not only impedes the right to privacy, but also carries with it a great risk. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from the government, but only in limited ways. It is easier for the government to protect itself from potentially dangerous citizens than it is for citizens to protect themselves from a potentially dangerous government.
Moreover, rights erosions happen in more nefarious and subtle ways. Brainwashing takes place systematically, through the traditional media and also social media. The recent hijacking of the United States election shows how easily Americans can be brainwashed. In Captain America: Civil War, the brainwashing is overt, it happens through serums and actual programs of conscientious infiltration of minds. In real life, brainwashing happens over a period of time and through careful media manipulation of messages and meanings. Brainwashing requires mainly the emotional attention of the viewer, and also a lack of media literacy. When issues are framed by any media source, including bloggers, the traditional media, and even friends on Facebook, a media illiterate person can become brainwashed. The person does not need to take a drug to be brainwashed; a person only needs to be told that bad things are going to happen, because of bad people, and if they do not take a certain action, that those bad things might happen to them personally. As Holmes describes the process of brainwashing in post-9/11 America, the Bush administration initiated a new world order in which the War on Terror would be used as an excuse to justify almost anything.
George Orwell’s book 1984 warned about excessive government surveillance and brainwashing, and since that book, a slew of others as well as films like Captain America: Civil War have addressed the issue. Clearly, people are concerned but do not know quite how to reconcile their desire for a more secure life and safer borders with their desire for freedom, liberty, and safety. The American government once allowed the House Un-American Activities program to persecute its own citizens suspected of being communist, which is why the current reality and Trump’s “extreme vetting” rhetoric becomes terrifying: is the government going to revert to Cold War tactics? Will America face another internal Civil War if the citizens are deeply divided about what is more important, liberty or security? The technologies used in Team America: Civil War are not completely unrealistic. It may one day be possible to implant all newborn babies in America. The implants might be achieved under the pretense of security in some way, even medical security. For example, the healthcare industry in conjunction with the pharmaceutical industry might claim that an implant for every American would save lives because it would mean that the person’s health and blood could be monitored at all times to prevent illnesses and disease. Or, the marketing companies might claim that the implant would make it so that a person would never again get robbed because all their money would be stored digitally and accessed through the chip. Whatever the technology is designed to be for, the government can also infiltrate that technology to bring people under its power and sway. Once that happens, people will become like machines, totally programmable like soldiers in Team America.
Films have the potential to raise awareness about current events and stimulate audience interest in taking action. Captain America: Civil War is one such film. Entertaining and fun, yet engaging and politically important, this film highlights what Casaregola states about films: “Films represent our awareness of surveillance and often trigger a deep emotional response from audiences,” (57). The superhero genre generally does not deal with this topic, but recent superhero movies have blended elements from other genres like dystopian dramas. Captain America: Civil War hearkens to the deep rooted fear of being watched, which might be “hard-wired into the human species from eons past when, as creatures who were both prey for carnivores and omnivores themselves, we had to become too aware of both the need to watch and the possibility of being watched,” (Casaregola 57). This is why Americans are conflicted about the concept of surveillance. On the one hand, we want to watch our predators, our enemies. On the other hand, we know that we are targets and do not want to be seen.
Foucault analyzed the prison model as the basis for excessive surveillance and government control, and that metaphor is apt for understanding the themes raised in Team America: Civil War (Casaregola). The daily lives of citizens will become nothing more than a prison if not enough is done to prevent the encroachment of government on the daily lives of people. Communications surveillance, physical surveillance, and transaction surveillance are all taking place at alarming rates. These are the new panopticons, the places of invisible government power. From those all-seeing-eyes, the government remains invisible while seeing everything. This gives the government total power over the individual, who cannot even see, let alone monitor, the overseer. With total power, the government could work with businesses and the private sector to implant material into food and water that makes minds even more malleable than they already are. With media already active mind manipulators, it is obvious that through willing consumer cooperation and surrender of personal data on social media, total mind control and brainwashing are already taking place. The long-term consequences of total domination of the human mind remain to be seen.
Casaregola, Vincent. “Who “Screens” Security?” In Ethical Issues and Citizen Rights in the Era of Digital Government Surveillance. Cropf, Robert (Ed.) IGI Global.
Dinev, Tamara, Parul Hart, and Michael Mullen. “Internet privacy concerns and beliefs about government surveillance — An empirical investigation.” The Journal of Strategic Information Systems, Vol. 17, No. 3, Sept 2008, pp. 214-233.
Holmes, Marcia. “The “Brainwashing” Dilemma.” History Workshop Journal, Vol 81, No. 1, 2016, pp. 285-293.
Russo, Anthony and Russo, Joe. Captain America: Civil War. Film, 2016.
Slogobin, Christopher. Privacy at Risk. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Swire, Peter P. “Financial Privacy and the Theory of High-Tech Government Surveillance.” Washington University Law Quarterly 461, 1999.
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