Testing Snowden's Hypothesis Does Mere Awareness Drive Opposition to Government Surveillance?

Nicholas A. Valentino, Fabian G. Neuner, Julia Kamin, Michael Bailey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


This study explores the antecedents of public support for government surveillance of the private electronic communications and internet browsing of American citizens. The National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, famously hoped that uncovering surveillance by the state would create awareness of those practices that would be sufficient to induce public opposition. Other theories suggest that support for these policies might be driven by perceptions of terrorist threat or personal risk of surveillance. We suspect, however, that most citizens do not imagine their own privacy rights to be at risk due to government surveillance, but instead believe members of other groups will be targeted. Therefore, we hypothesize that empathy toward vulnerable outgroups should strongly dampen enthusiasm for surveillance, above and beyond awareness and personal concerns and interests. A nationally representative survey finds knowledge about government surveillance to be higher than many presume, but variation in knowledge or personal interests are largely uncorrelated with support. As hypothesized, empathy for outgroups strongly predicts opposition to these policies, above and beyond a host of other factors. Two experiments further corroborate the result: Outgroup empathy, not exposure to information about actual surveillance practices, boosts public opposition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)958-985
Number of pages28
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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