The Unintrusive Nature of Digital Surveillance and Its Social Consequences

Xu Xu, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

4:30pm - 5:45pm | CSCC Conference Room, 133 S. 36th St, Room 418

The world is witnessing an explosion of digital surveillance in recent years. Yet, we rarely saw massive surveillance states before the digital age. This paper examines citizens’ responses to digital surveillance versus in-person surveillance in dictatorships to identify potential causes of digital surveillance expansion. I argue that digital surveillance is less offensive than in-person surveillance because it does not entail human intrusion into citizens’ private lives. I manipulate information about surveillance operations in a field survey experiment on college students in two regions of China. I find that digital surveillance is less likely to undermine interpersonal trust and regime legitimacy than in-person surveillance. But both types of surveillance are effective in deterring political participation. I further establish the external validity of the experimental findings by using a nationally representative survey and a natural experiment caused by the 2015 Tianjin explosion. Overall, digital surveillance suppresses political participation, and the unintrusive nature of digital surveillance implies that it can expand rapidly without facing much resistance from society.

Xu Xu is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Xu studies the politics of information, political repression, and the political economy of development with a regional focus on China. He is currently working on a book entitled Authoritarian Control in the Age of Digital Surveillance. His other ongoing projects examine public opinion on state repression in authoritarian regimes, propaganda and new media in China, and preference formation among Chinese citizens. His work is published or forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, and the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, among other peer-reviewed journals. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the Pennsylvania State University in 2019 and was a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University from 2020 to 2021.

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