Communication and Media Studies International Award for Excellence

The Journal of Communication and Media Studies offers an annual award for newly published research or thinking that has been recognized to be outstanding by members of the Communication and Media Studies Research Network.

Award Winner for Volume 2

Reconceptualizing Digital Privacy: Examining Two Alternatives in the 2016 Presidential Election

Following the Snowden revelations of pervasive surveillance by the National Security Agency, Pew has found that forty-six percent of Americans still support the mass collection of data. While there was significant outrage after the revelations, the controversy has fallen out of the public eye and the surveillance state remains intact. In addition, commercial and political data collection by companies and campaigns also presents threats to privacy. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook declared, “The age of privacy is over,” and other technology leaders have told the public to “get over it” when it comes to privacy concerns. The digital realm, where almost all commercial, political, and personal activity occurs, presents new ways to understand and conceptualize online activity. In this article, I argue that the traditional activities understood to be the domain of online privacy—sharing social media updates, commercial transactions, news gathering—can be reframed through the economic conceptions of labor and currency. This article uses the 2016 presidential election campaigns to analyze how online political privacy can be understood in a new context. As a result, this work reframes the debate over online privacy from a research perspective and also from a public-facing perspective.

This article is a result of a seminar paper I wrote as a graduate student. It is also my first scholarly peer-reviewed piece. My interest in politics has been present since my teenage years. Conducting the research for this article challenged me to think well beyond the typical frame of writing on politics.

In this article I used the latest research on digital politics combined with a political economy perspective. The trend in analyzing the political and economic relationship dimensions of digital data collection structures is a growing and exciting development in my field. This article contributes to this conversation and applies it to a timely topic, the 2016 Presidential election.

In this article I view data collection practices online as a phenomenon occurring within complex systems of party decision making and normative theories of how practitioners should do politics. A potential impact for other young scholars like myself is to consider how using data traditionally used in the field of political science, such as Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, can be a powerful source of data for communication studies.

For practitioners and those invested in their partisan identity, this article should also point out some of the larger issues imbedded in political data collection. This is especially important considering developments since the publication of this piece which show the vulnerability of data systems to malicious state and criminal actors.

The ongoing debate over the role of campaign contributions should also be augmented by the issues I raise here. The ability to raise money in political campaigns is often a signal to party officials of a candidate’s viability. In return for party support, candidates are asked to spend most of their budget on consultants recommended by the party.

The structure of this candidate-consultant-party apparatus reinforces the problems I raised in this article, the exploitation of digital labor, the need for lots of money and disregard for privacy. It also generally prevents candidates who might critique the system from gaining popular support.

Arthur D. Soto-Vásquez