Digital Technology and the Market for Political Surveillance

Many new media technologies, such as the internet, serve both as a tool for organizing public commons and as a tool for surveilling private lives. This paper addresses the manner in which such technological innovations have enabled a dramatically expanded market for public policy opinion data, and explores the potential role of that market in facilitating panoptic regimes of both private and state surveillance. Whereas information about public policy opinion used to be highly reductive, expensive to collect, and restricted to a limited number of powerful political actors, today it is much less expensive, highly nuanced, and widely available. Pollsters now also have the ability to extrapolate political information from our commercial and noncommercial activities. We investigate the work of two organizations, a public policy polling firm named Grapevine Polling, and an advocacy consulting firm named United Campaigns. We find that both the increased sophistication of these firms’ methods and the reduced cost of increasingly personalized data together have the potential to undermine the very public sphere that digital media were hoped to reinvigorate. Moreover, overlapping state and private demand for the products of such pollsters reflects the extent to which politics and the marketplace are increasingly intertwined and inseparable under the current articulation of democracy in the US.

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Technology and Society
Public Policy
Research Methods
International Affairs