Leiden Psychology Blog

Digital surveillance programs - safeguards or spies?

Digital surveillance programs - safeguards or spies? Eye and cardinal - by Michael Kappel

Do we perceive states that read our emails, web chats, and other (digital) communications as safeguards or as spies? Research indicates that these attitudes are largely influenced by how news reports about these controversial issues are framed.

Recently, the world has learned of PRISM: a surveillance program that gives US security agencies NSA and FBI access to data from the servers of major internet companies, such as emails, photos, and social networking details. There are generally two messages regarding how we could perceive the PRISM program. On the one hand, people (mainly from the US government) say it is a tool to keep us safe, because it enables the security agencies to track terrorism suspects. As such, the program could help to prevent terrorist attacks. On the other hand, there is a large group of people who state that the PRISM program is an invasion of our privacy and freedom, because it is not only the data of alleged terrorists that are accessible; the data of innocent civilians can also be spied on. So, what is the general perception of PRISM, and do people have a clear attitude towards this program?

Whether we perceive the program as a safeguard or a spy can be largely influenced by how it is defined in news reports. This process of defining and constructing is called ‘message framing’. Communicators can use message framing techniques to influence the public opinion in the direction of the position they advocate. Framing effects are said to occur when changes in the presentation of a particular issue produce changes of opinion (Chong & Druckman, 2007). Experimental psychological research has shown that framing effects can occur even with controversial issues about which everybody seems to have a clear opinion. That is, studies found that people expressed more tolerance towards the Ku Klux Klan (a far-right US organization which advocates extremist reactionary thoughts) after reading a news article about a planned Ku Klux Klan rally in which freedom of speech was emphasized than when  emphasis was placed on the risks to public safety (Druckman, 2001; Nelson, Clawson, & Oxley, 1997). Thus, framing controversial issues in terms of either safety or freedom can really change perceptions.

So, what does the general public think about the PRISM program? The answer might be less straightforward than expected. What we do know is that when news reports emphasize the fact that the program poses a threat to our privacy, the public might be more opposed to the program than when the emphasis is on public safety.

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