Political leanings dictate feelings about surveillance of low-income populations

A Q&A with researcher Joseph Turow of the Annenberg School for Communication

Joseph Turow, a researcher in the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn.
Joseph Turow, a researcher in the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn.

In today’s digital age, privacy is top of mind, with surveillance of all kinds becoming more and more common. Certain practices disproportionately affect low-income segments of the population, for example, when an apartment owner uses a computer database listing past rental behaviors to evaluate potential tenants, or when an employer makes note of a person’s credit history before making a hiring decision.

A new report from Annenberg researchers, led by Joseph Turow, looks at how Americans feel about surveillance predominantly directed at low-income populations.
A new report from Annenberg researchers, led by Joseph Turow, looks at how Americans feel about surveillance predominantly directed at low-income populations.

Though research has assessed how this group, defined as families earning no more than $35,000 annually, experiences such surveillance, none had analyzed how Americans as a whole feel about it. 

Joseph Turow, a researcher at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, along with Opeyemi Akanbi and Diami Virgilio of Annenberg, Nora Draper (who earned her Ph.D. from Annenberg) of the University of New Hampshire, and statistician Michael Hennessy, published a new report that attempts to answers this question. 

Surveying 1,500 people, the study asked participants to rate how they felt about four scenarios affecting low-income populations: the government tracking where people buy groceries with food stamps or an EBT card, a company looking at someone’s credit history during the hiring process, a police department monitoring people with characteristics similar to criminals, and apartment owners using a database to look at past renter behavior.

The researchers also asked about three scenarios that could apply to anyone: Facebook sending users ads based on interests expressed through the social network, a college turning down applicants because of their social media content, and a company monitoring what its employees do on work computers.  

Among other findings, the team learned that political leaning, both in terms of party and political orientation (a combination of party and ideology), significantly affects how a person feels about surveillance of low-income Americans. Specifically, those who identify as Democrat or Independent choose negative emotions (sad, angry, threatened, creeped out) in much greater percentages than those who identify as Republican. The divide widens when looking more granularly within those parties. For instance, conservative Republicans almost always respond more positively to the study scenarios about low-income surveillance than do liberal Democrats. 

Penn Today spoke with Turow about the research, what the findings mean, and what he and colleagues hope will come from publishing it. 

Can you explain your research process?

There are a fair number of studies that look at what poor people think of themselves and their situations. There have also been some small-scale case studies, which are terrific, about the dynamics of low-income and surveillance, but no one had done anything about what Americans think about low-income surveillance. Then the question was, how do we get at that? 

You presented participants with the scenarios described above, then asked them to discern how they felt?

First, we tried asking, is this good or bad, acceptable or not acceptable? But I realized that wasn’t a way to get at reactions to surveillance, which are very complicated and often conflicted. So we decided to use the “classic” emotions you can see on someone’s face—“happy,” “sad,” “angry,” “disgusted,” “surprised,” and “threatened”—and pair them with their opposites. Instead of “disgusted,” we used “creeped out” because we thought it was more relevant to the situation.

What did you learn?

First of all, there is a fair amount of American support for various kinds of surveillance in strong numbers. We also found that income has something to do with how people felt, such that low-income people were more likely to not be as happy or pleased or unbothered as higher-income people. We defined low-income as $35,000 annual household income or less. 

But far more important were the person’s political party and political orientation. In those who answered the question about the apartment, for example, twice as many Republications felt happy and pleased that that kind of surveillance took place compared to Democrats, and Independents were in the middle. 

Did the results surprise you?

They were flummoxing findings in my mind. They seem to suggest there’s a real chasm in terms of emotional reactions between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. It brought up questions about why it happens, and I don’t have an answer. What is it about political orientation that reaches into people’s emotions about surveillance? What’s going on in society?

Where do we go from here?

We’re hoping that highlighting these data will start social conversations about questions that emerge from our findings. We need to ask how it is that politics, emotions, and surveillance became so intertwined, and why. We need to talk publicly about how political power creates these frameworks of understanding that, over time, seem natural. We need to discuss how these frameworks get translated into emotional reactions that may not appear political even when they are deeply so. And we need to discuss whether and how these consistent, though quite complex, emotions affect people’s decisions regarding policy more intuitively and therefore more profoundly than the political frameworks from which they spring. Our study presents the elements to stimulate this discussion.

Joseph Turow is the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication and the associate dean for graduate studies at the Annenberg School for Communication. Opeyemi Akanbi and Diami Virgilio are doctoral candidates at the Annenberg School for Communication. 

The report, “Divided We Feel: Partisan Politics Drive Americans’ Emotions Regarding Surveillance of Low-Income Populations,” published on Monday, April 30, 2018. A story about the work appeared in The New York Times print edition on May 2, 2018.