Can you Trigger me?
An Experiment on the Political Consequences of Privacy-Related Political Scandals
Giorgia Alessia Casanova 13779761
Graduate School of Communication
Master’s Program in Communication Sciences: Political Communication Dr. Tom Dobber
Friday, July 1st, 2022
Research shows that in recent years privacy scandals have started a new trend that spurs citizens to overcome their passivity about their privacy settings. Among the most notorious scandals, Cambridge Analytica has succeeded in shaking users into self-
preservation behaviors, increasing concerns about privacy, and demanding corrective actions.
However, the consequences of this specific scandal have focused on the trust of the corporate actors involved, while the political repercussions have been greatly neglected. Nonetheless, the literature shows that scandals and data breaches can heavily influence politics and democracy. Therefore, the following study investigates to what extent exposure to the
Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal decreases political trust and influences voting behaviors. However, results of the survey experiment on 181 Swiss participants show that the passivity toward privacy has the upper hand in the relationship (i.e., privacy paradox and privacy fatigue), and exposure to the scandal information does not influence the sample’s political trust and voting behavior. Future studies should concentrate on overcoming this privacy passivity since privacy-related political scandals, and their severe consequences on the political system, are far from over.
“To avoid erosion of trust, it would be best if they did not learn about it as part of a privacy scandal” – Véliz & Grunewald, 2018, p. 703
Technological development has introduced opportunities and challenges to
contemporary societies in recent years, permeating and altering most citizens’ personal and public spheres. In these new digital democracies, the very concept of the right to privacy has also seen a radical evolution from a private “space” that allows people to express their individuality (Rössler, 2005, p. 144) to a societal concept capable of being compromised by mass surveillance (Buttarelli, 2017, p. 326). In this context, exploiting personal data for economic or political reasons has become a growing phenomenon (Ruppert, Isin & Bigo, 2017, p. 2) that by intruding on citizens’ privacy rights, it endangers one of the preconditions of western democracies (Westin, 1967). In this regard, in liberal democracies, privacy has long been conceptualized as the autonomous sphere for citizens’ opinions that allows for the negotiation of the boundary between the public and the private, the rulers and the ruled. Thus, when democracy fails to defend this sphere of autonomy that creates citizens’ commonality, it destroys the possibility of creating a political community and, consequently, a healthy society (Regan, 1995, p. 227; Schwartz, 1999, p. 1609; Westin, 1967, p. 24). However, this evolution of privacy, which in recent years translated into increased concerns among citizens (Muhammad, 2020), is not enough to push people to react to these surveillance threats to their fundamental right by changing their privacy settings and behavior (Shillair et al., 2015), nor does it result in calling on governments for action (Mittelstadt, 2016, p. 4991). Instead, users have a passive response that could be explained through the privacy paradox and privacy fatigue concepts. The privacy paradox describes how people claim to value privacy considerably but do nothing to protect it (Solove, 2021). In contrast, privacy fatigue
represents the increasing inability to keep up with the rapidly changing digitized world and the feeling that they cannot protect their privacy (Choi, Park, & Jung, 2018).
Consequently, even if privacy concerns are growing among citizens, it remains difficult to shake people into self-preservation behaviors. However, studies show that scandals often trigger strong and quick responses (von Sikorski, 2018). In this regard, the research on the effect of privacy-related scandals has started to flourish after the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal, that by collecting millions of users’ data to target political
advertisements for the 2017 Trump Presidential election (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018), managed to increase users’ privacy concerns and push people to adapt and reinforce their privacy setting (Brown, 2020; Hsu, 2018; Shipman and Marshall, 2020). Despite these reactions, it is not clear how this event impacted the political actors involved in the scandal.
In this regard, Cambridge Analytica can be considered a corporate and political scandal, depending on whether the focus one decides to concentrate on is about the repercussions on Facebook as a company or on politics and public interest (Brown, 2020; Thomson, 2020).
Nonetheless, the literature about the consequences of the Cambridge Analytica scandal on Facebook’s corporate trust is not missing (Brown, 2020; Kanter, 2018; Weisbaum, 2018), while the one on political trust is highly overlooked, demonstrating how the literature connecting privacy-related political scandals and its political consequences is still in its infancy although the clear societal relevance. As shown by both the literature about scandals reaction and the literature about the consequences of unethical data use and surveillance, some risks go way further than the mere privacy rights but include dangerous outcomes for democracy overall (Bowler, & Karp, 2004; Esteve, 2017, p. 38; Véliz & Grunewald, 2018, p.
702). In this regard, these consequences can be seen both in how people perceive their government (i.e., political trust) and how they act upon it (e.g., voting behaviors). Starting with trust in political institutions, this is the core condition for a healthy democracy, which is demonstrated to be damaged by data and privacy breaches (Davis Plüss, 2018; Scheidegger &
Staerklé, 2011, p. 166). In this regard, the case of Switzerland ideally allows researching the effect of a privacy-related political scandal on political trust. In fact, 80% of Swiss people
have confidence in their government operations (OECD, 2017). However, at the same time, citizens are no strangers to political scandals and privacy and data breaches, and both are demonstrated to affect Swiss political trust (Davis Plüss, 2018). These and other peculiar characteristics of the Swiss electorate, such as low turnout but high referenda (Longchamp, 2022; the Economist, 2021), allow us to research the consequences that a scandal has not only on political trust but also on the voting behavior of the sample.
Therefore, even if people are overwhelmed by a feeling of exhaustion for their online privacy self-defense (Choi, Park, & Jung, 2018; Solove, 2021), privacy concerns seem not enough to research the relationship with political trust or voting behavior. However, considering the characteristics of the Swiss population and how the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal shaped users’ behavior and corporate trust worldwide (Brown, 2020; González et al., 2019; Hsu, 2018; Weisbaum, 2018), the implications of a privacy scandal are expected to reveal that citizens can be pushed to more dissatisfaction with how their data are getting handled by their government and thus increase the distrust and action towards them. Therefore, through an online survey experiment of Swiss participants (N
= 181), this study aims to answer the following overarching research questions:
RQ1: To what extent does exposure to a privacy-related political scandal (IV) decrease political trust (DV1) of young Swiss people, and how does previous knowledge about the scandal itself (M) moderate the relationship?
RQ2: To what extent does exposure to a privacy-related political scandal (IV) influence voting behaviors (DV2) of young Swiss people?
Theoretical Framework Privacy Concerns and Democratic Consequences
From the mid-1920s, privacy was recognized with the idea of freedom, a requirement of liberal democracies in that it allows for a plurality of ideas by creating a “space” that could enhance individuality and personal growth without the risk of stigmatization (Rössler, 2005, p. 144; Westin, 1967). In other words, as Schwartz (1999) puts it, privacy defends the
autonomous sphere that a liberal democracy requires for its wellbeing (p. 1609). On the other hand, besides this conceptualization of privacy as a private dimension, where individual citizens can deliberate freely, a societal dimension of privacy also exists, in which the relationship between privacy and politics is easier to grasp (Matzner & Ochs, 2019). In this second definition, privacy and democratic institutions are more intertwined. Here privacy generates a commonality among citizens that allows for creating a political community, which is the base for developing a functioning society that produces trust and accountability in politics (Regan, 1995; Westin, 1967). Privacy is considered a precondition for a healthy democracy in both dimensions. However, in this second conceptualization, it is easier to understand how the advent of digital societies complicates the very existence of privacy (Matzner & Ochs, 2019). As explained by Buttarelli (2017), the “confluence between
political malevolence and technological omnipotence” has created an uncomfortable situation for privacy rights since the interferences of compromising these rights involved setting precedents for the development of mass surveillance (p. 326). As said by Malakhova, Garnov, & Karnilova (2018), the consequences of digital societies could influence “not only the economic situation but also substantially rebuild the entire current social reality with its social institutions and regulatory complexes” (p. 576). Thus, while remaining a precondition for personal growth or democratic empowerment, privacy and user data in digital democracy also became the bargaining chip for governments and corporations to profit from user data without significant consequences (Mittelstadt, 2016). In this regard, both the regulatory
organs employing data collection auditing and the users themselves do not condemn this phenomenon as they should (Lopez et al., 2017; Ruppert, Isin & Bigo, 2017, p. 1).
In the first case, the lack of adequate governmental regulations to prevent
indiscriminate mass surveillance on citizens has damaging consequences on the macro-level of privacy, i.e., the public sphere, as the lack of privacy in the formation of political opinions results in poor and untransparent political discourse, which could have consequences for democracy at large (Mittelstadt, 2016, p. 4992; Stahl, 2016). In this context, legislation and auditing are the only way to prevent privacy intrusions since after data have been
compromised, “privacy is not recovered”, and no penalty imposed a posteriori can change the consequences of these incursions (Lopez et al., 2017, p. 48).
On the other hand, worldwide, at the micro-level of users, even if privacy concerns are increasing (Muhammad, 2020), citizens in their role as users claim to “value privacy highly, [even if] yet in their behavior relinquish their data for very little in exchange or fail to use measures to protect their privacy.” (Solove, 2021, p. 1). This concept, called the privacy paradox, combined with the privacy fatigue theory of feeling overwhelmed by
disempowerment and exhaustion in controlling one’s privacy settings (Choi, Park, & Jung, 2018), creates a new definition of contemporary personal privacy. The problems that come from this lack of action have repercussions on citizens’ privacy rights since the dissolution of the autonomous sphere that privacy represents implies that an essential criterion to develop trust and accountability for democracies is missing (Regan, 1995; Schwartz, 1999).
In this regard, citizens’ passivity alienates them from their social and political responsibility to protect themselves, a deficiency that could then result in the application of indiscriminate mass surveillance (Stahl, 2016). It was demonstrated that lately, privacy laws are perceived as less vital, and most users do not read privacy policies or terms of service policies. As an example of this trend, 98% of the respondents to a study agree without even noticing with “gotcha clauses” like “providing a first-born child as payment for the access”
(Obar & Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2020, p. 134-136), demonstrating how superficially treated privacy laws and regulations are. Lastly and probably even more deeply problematical, besides the passivity, people are becoming frustrated with privacy laws protecting them (Fazzini, 2019).
The Effects of Privacy-Related Political Scandals on Political Trust
Although privacy concerns are growing worldwide (Muhammad, 2020), these are not enough to initiate self-preservation responses or mobilize a good citizenry for issues of public interest (Choi, Park, & Jung, 2018; Shillair et al., 2015). On the other hand, political scandals often trigger a backlash and solid evaluative response toward governments that could shake up the democratic balance (von Sikorski, 2018). In this regard, political scandals manage to influence citizens’ perception of the politicians or political parties, institutions or
governments involved creating damaging repercussions for their trust, reputation, approval, and electorate (Bowler & Karp, 2004; Ulbig & Miller, 2012). By reflecting on the essential characteristics that define political scandals, the two main features appear to be “violation of social norms or moral standards” and public attention to the scandal (Thomson, 2000).
Consequently, for a scandal to be called “political” in nature and thus correlate better with concepts such as trust in politics (Bowler & Karp, 2004; von Sikorski, Heiss & Matthes, 2020), these two characteristics must be present.
Circling back to privacy, in the latest years, poor or lacking legislation allowed for the onset of privacy breaches and scandals (Sen & Borle, 2015). Among the most infamous ones is the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal that happened in 2018, where the CA company
“harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.” (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018). By creating
consequences for the development and maintenance of a trustworthy and accountable democracy (Mittelstadt, 2016, p. 4992; Stahl, 2016), and violating social norms and
generating public interest (Thomson, 2020), the Cambridge Analytica scandal could be defined for all intents and purposes as privacy-related political scandals. In this regard, for the specific privacy-related political scandal of Cambridge Analytica, it was demonstrated by Shipman and Marshall (2020) that “participants with the greatest awareness of the news story’s details [Cambridge Analytica Scandal] have more polarized attitudes about reuse, especially the reuse of content as data. […], greater concern about networked privacy rights, […] and more willingness for social media platforms to demand corrections of inaccurate or deceptive content.” (p. 520). Therefore, while the growing privacy concerns are not enough to ask for corrective behaviors and protections of their own privacy rights, scandals like the one of Cambridge Analytica could trigger a more significant response since it demonstrates how “social media malpractice goes beyond individual privacy invasion, to threats to citizen rights in a democratic political system” (Hsu, 2018, as cited in Brown, 2020, p. 2). In
addition, by grabbing media attention, the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed that citizens are indeed concerned about privacy intrusions and the political abuse of power, and that privacy is an indispensable democratic precondition (Privacy International, 2019). Another characteristic of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that although the scope of the
phenomenon is limited to the United States, the repercussions for the privacy rights debate and trust in institutional auditing were global (González et al., 2019). Therefore, among many, Cambridge Analytica is likely to be the most known privacy-related political scandal worldwide. In addition, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke out just two months before the acquisition of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which broadened its resonance as it happened in a societal context in which privacy was under scrutiny also in Europe (Privacy International, 2019).
Since the negative consequences of political scandals on political trust are a deep researched topic (von Sikorski, Heiss & Matthes, 2020, p. 550), and seeing the political implications of a privacy-related political scandal like Cambridge Analytica, it would be
interesting to research how this type of scandal could as well influence political trust. Even if both the fear for privacy concerns and the passivity towards users’ privacy rights are
increasing, only the advent of a privacy-related political scandal of the magnitude of CA awakened people into acting or demanding action for their rights (Brown, 2020; Shipman and Marshall, 2020). In addition, this gap deserves to be studied since the literature has focused on Cambridge Analytica as a corporate scandal to explore the consequences that Facebook faced as a company (Brown, 2020; Kanter, 2018; Weisbaum, 2018), but the political
implications were highly overlooked. However, since political scandals usually have a more direct effect on political trust than other types of scandals (Bowler & Karp, 2004; von
Sikorski, Heiss & Matthes, 2018), the peculiar characteristics and implications of Cambridge Analytica could allow research on the power of privacy-related political scandals as triggers for privacy concerns and consequent effects on political trust. In fact, the literature confirms that confidence in both businesses and governments can be influenced by “unethical data practices” (Véliz & Grunewald, 2018, p. 702). Data use, and surveillance could entail dangerous consequences for personalized advertisement and, just as worthy, for privacy rights (Esteve, 2017, p. 38).
Therefore, privacy-related political scandals are expected to negatively affect political trust as political scandals do. Consequently, this gap in the literature deserves further
investigation to see if there is a relationship between privacy-related political scandals and decreasing political trust.
Lastly, since privacy is highly valued in Western democracies (Westin, 1967), the sample employed in this study must have this political system. Therefore, a Swiss sample will be gathered since, besides being a liberal democracy, it entails interesting characteristics that allow researching the relationship between scandals and political trust and voting behaviors.
Furthermore, there is evidence that data breaches and leaks affect political trust in
Switzerland (Davis Plüss, 2018), although political trust is one of the highest globally (OECD, 2017). Thus, the first hypothesis states as follows:
Hypothesis 1 (H1): Exposure to the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal will lead to lower levels of political trust.
The Moderating Effect of Prior Scandal Knowledge
Prior knowledge about Cambridge Analytica is crucial, and it will likely play a moderating role in the abovementioned hypothesis (Hinds, Williams, & Joinson, 2020). The use of prior scandal knowledge as a moderator in analyzing the effect of a scandal on political trust is a triad that was already used in the paper of von Sikorski, Heiss and Matthes (2020, p.
550). The article demonstrates that higher scandal knowledge creates a “negative scandal- spillover effect” that decreases political trust (Sikorski, Heiss and Matthes, 2020, p. 562-63).
Consequently, and analogically, higher prior knowledge of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is expected to decrease political trust when the participants are exposed to information about the CA scandal. In addition, as discovered by Shipman and Marshall (2020), greater
awareness about the Cambridge Analytica scandal translates into more substantial concerns about the right to online privacy rights (p. 520). Therefore, considering the discussed gap, the second hypothesis states:
Hypothesis 2 (H2): The negative effect of exposure to the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal on political trust is moderated by prior knowledge, such that the effect is stronger for people with higher prior knowledge about the scandal.
The Peculiar Case of Voting Behaviors in Switzerland
Political trust in Switzerland is among the highest globally, with 80% of its citizens having confidence in their government (OECD, 2017). In addition, Switzerland’s democratic
system is a direct participatory democracy where citizens can vote more often than in other liberal democracies (O’Sullivan, 2018). However, despite high political trust and the free political system, voters’ participation in Switzerland is one of the lowest in the democratic world (O’Sullivan, 2018). In fact, “the Swiss no longer feel obliged to participate in political life” due to the high number of elections they are subjected to (Longchamp, 2022). However, even though the Swiss election fatigue is high and low turnout does not even surprise
anymore (Longchamp, 2022), “Swiss have the most pervasive system of referendums of any country in the world” (the Economist, 2021). Swiss people can vote directly on policies without allowing elected politicians to decide directly. Even though political turnout is low in Switzerland, the high number of proposed referenda demonstrate how citizens are still
engaged in the causes they believe more (the Economist, 2021). In this regard, political scandals often lead to distrust in the general flow of politics by shaking people into being more willing to act and change things, alias vote (Dahlberg & Solevid, 2016, p. 489; von Sikorski, 2018). This trend is expected to be confirmed for the specific case of Switzerland since referenda show how people engage in the causes they believe (the Economist, 2021).
Therefore, since the conditions presented in the experiment are operationalized as an intrusive privacy law proposal, and considering the characteristics of the typical Swiss
citizen, the group that will be exposed to also the CA scandal information is expected to have an increased likelihood of voting to reject the law proposal presented in the experiment. In fact, for the specific case of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, greater awareness of the scandal is demonstrated to create more willingness to request corrective behaviors (Shipman
& Marshall, 2020, p. 520). Besides, even though Cambridge Analytica is a U.S. scandal, it has gained worldwide attention and should trigger a Swiss sample (González et al., 2019).
Lastly, privacy laws are usually read superficially (Fazzini, 2019; Obar & Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2020). Therefore, the neutral condition is not expected to trigger any reaction in voting behaviors. Thus, the last hypothesis states:
Hypothesis 3 (H3): Exposure to the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal will lead to higher rejection of the intrusive fictional law proposed in the experiment.
Context of the Study
The sample will be composed of young people since Swiss youth is moving towards either soft news consumption or no political news consumption, i.e., news-avoider, two trends that create issues for political knowledge (Baym, 2005; fög, 2019). Consequently, since the moderator implies knowledge of the privacy-related political scandal Cambridge Analytica, considering the low or absent political news consumption, the sample will probably reveal exciting results even if well-educated. Lastly, partisanship is higher among older generations, a demographical characteristic that could bias political trust (Dalton &
The relationships between the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal and political trust or voting support are investigated through a survey experiment. Indeed, because of its characteristics, an experimental design is the best way to test whether the mere presence of the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal information succeeds in influencing the dependent variables (Haslam & McGarty, 2004, p. 242). The study will be a 2x2 factorial design, with factor X (exposure to the CA privacy-related political scandal) as a between-subjects variable (2 levels: absent vs. present) and factor M (prior knowledge of the CA scandal) as a quasi-experimental factor (2 levels: higher and lower) also used as the moderator. The dependent variables will be political trust for the first two hypotheses and the likelihood of rejecting the law proposal for the third hypothesis.
During the field phase, which lasted from May 10th to May 17th, the finalized survey was shared with the intended sample, a convenience sample collected through the author’s contact and Instagram profile and consequent respondents’ snowball sampling. According to Geuens and De Pelsmacker (2017), every cell of the 2x2 quasi-experimental (i.e., four cells) design needs at least 40 participants for 160 participants’ responses. The final sample overcame the expectations and consisted of 214 valid responses. Nonetheless, some participants had to be eliminated since their characteristics did not match those of the researched target sample, meaning young (i.e., 18-31 years old) Swiss people.
Consequently, four filters have been enacted to clean the data from the participants that did not fit the target. The first filter excluded the participants that took less than three minutes or more than a day to complete the survey since it was either done too fast or too slowly for the manipulation to be still effective. The second filter excluded people younger than 18 and older than 31 to have the intended young sample. The third filter kept only Swiss people, whereas the fourth deleted those who did not want to participate in the study. After the deletion of 33 participants through these data cleaning criteria, there were still 181 valid responses, with 85 participants (47%) seeing the control and 96 (53%) the manipulated condition. The 181 participants are all from Switzerland and are, on average, 24 years old;
male and female genders are almost equally represented, with 83 males, 95 females, and two participants with non-binary gender. The sample, as expected, is highly educated, with 84%
attending or having completed their university studies. The sample identifies as leftist, with a 3.95 average on a scale from 1 (far left) to 10 (far right), with 69.1% being very or somewhat interested in politics. Lastly, the sample is rather concerned about privacy, with a mean of 5.10, where 7 represents the maximum degree of concern.
Construction of the IV – Manipulation
The two conditions representing the independent variable have been operationalized in a fictitious article from the European Commission discussing a new law proposal about abolishing laws protecting privacy rights. The neutral condition only contains the base text about the new law proposal and has a length of 150 words. Instead, the manipulated one also discusses the CA scandal (i.e., the trigger) by adding 50 words to the base condition (i.e., 200 words). These new 50 words are split into three paragraphs, added at the beginning, middle, and fictive article’s end, since often people concentrate only on the article’s start and end (i.e., primacy and recency bias; Levers of Persuasion, 2020). Visually the articles look the same, with the same layout, picture, and colors, since the conditions should be as similar as possible to avoid straying from the intended manipulation (Chambliss & Schutt, 2018, p. 107;
Geuens & De Pelsmacker, 2017, p. 85; cf. Appendix, Block 3 - Manipulation). However, adding 50 words creates a situation slightly more demanding for the participants in the manipulation condition. Therefore, a manipulation check item will control the perception of the article’s length.
Construction of the Moderator – Prior Cambridge Analytica Knowledge
Prior knowledge about the Cambridge Analytica scandal will be employed as a moderator to assess whether it might influence how the manipulated condition is perceived.
Since no previous validated scales were measuring the knowledge of the Cambridge
Analytica scandal, this study uses a self-constructed scale of items like the paper of Dobber et al. (2020, p. 1221). Prior knowledge about the Cambridge Analytica scandal was measured through three statements about the CA scandal that had to be rated with “true or false” to demonstrate the actual knowledge of the scandal. The results were later operationalized in a binary variable representing lower and higher knowledge of the scandal (lower: n = 32 (19.5%); higher: n = 132 (80.5%); N = 164). To test the moderating effect of prior
knowledge, it is necessary to use an interaction variable between the IV and the moderator.
Therefore, a 2-way interaction variable between IV and actual knowledge is created.
Lastly, to not trigger people about the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the survey, they will be asked to rate other claims about other general societal topics, meaning
COVID-19 and climate change. As for the CA scandal knowledge scale, the COVID-19 and climate change scales were self-constructed from reliable information on the issues collected from scientific reports and professional newspapers. To see all the sources for all the items, cf. Appendix, Block 2 - Knowledge Questions.
Construction of the First DV – Political Trust
The survey question representing the dependent variable political trust is operationalized through nine items derived and adapted from the validated scale of
Grimmelikhuijsen & Knies (2017). This scale has three dimensions, all composed of three items. These dimensions are perceived competence, perceived benevolence, and perceived integrity of the discussed government. To create the new scale representing the DV political trust, the validity of the measurement instrument represented by the nine items is tested by exploratory factor analysis. Both Bartlett’s test (Chi-square(36) = 1347.59, p < .001) and KMO of sampling adequacy (KMO = .868) show the suitability of factor analysis. The oblimin rotation shows that only one factor is greater than 1.0 (E.V.: 5.812), accounting for 64.6% of the variance and representing “political trust.” A reliability analysis among the nine items is calculated as a second step. The high Cronbach Alpha of .931 confirms that all items can be used to create the new index representing the DV political trust. After these tests, the new scale is created to be used as the DV of the first two hypotheses that will answer the first research question.
Construction of the Second DV – Likelihood of Rejecting the Proposed Law
Two survey questions representing the likelihood of supporting the proposed law are operationalized and used as the second dependent variable to analyze the third hypothesis and answer the second research question. Firstly, the participants were asked if, by keeping in mind their usual voting frequency, they thought they would be more likely to vote (either for or against) for the law proposed in the article (M = 6.01, SD = 1.96, N = 167). Secondly, they were asked if they would support the bill or not (M = 3.53, SD = 2.74, N = 149). These two questions will show if scandals like CA could mobilize people to vote to stand for themselves (Dahlberg & Solevid, 2016, p. 489).
To assess whether the manipulation was carried out as intended, the manipulation check item was expected to show a significant difference between the two conditions. The results of the t-test on the manipulation control item stating “The article you read earlier also mentioned a scandal” show a significant result since the manipulated group exposed to information about the Cambridge Analytica scandal scored higher on this item (M = 5.51, SD
= 1.58, n = 96) than the control group (M = 2.77, SD = 1.94, n = 85), t(176) = -10.328, p = .003. According to Cohen (1992), the effect size is r = .26 and thus corresponds to a medium effect. Therefore, the manipulation was successful and worked as intended.
After being accepted because it complied with the research ethics rules of the
University of Amsterdam, the online survey experiment was shared, and data were collected over a week (May 10–17, 2022). In the introductory text, to avoid revealing the experiment’s true purpose, participants were told that they would take part in a questionnaire on some general topics related to policy and privacy. The introductory text also contains information
about the employed GDPR to protect participants’ data. After this text, the consent to participate is requested. Participants who decided to continue the study were presented with sociodemographic questions, such as age, gender, nationality, education, political interest and orientation, and concern for their privacy. After this section, participants must answer
knowledge questions on COVID-19, climate change, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The latter will serve as the moderator and is the only knowledge question of interest and will be used later for the analysis. After that, participants were randomly assigned to the two stimuli. After being exposed to one of the two items representing the two conditions, all participants are redirected to the online survey to answer the questions on the dependent variables, namely trust in politics and the tendency to vote to reject the law presented in the two articles. Finally, as the last question, all participants were subjected to a manipulation check to ensure that the manipulation worked as intended. After that, all participants viewed a very detailed debriefing that explained how and why they were manipulated, and a link to learn more about the Cambridge Analytica scandal was provided.
Results Randomization Checks
To control that the randomization of participants produced balanced distributions across the four experimental conditions, the socio-demographic questions describing the sample must be controlled through randomization checks. The categorical variables gender and education were tested with chi-square through crosstabs and resulted in non-significant results: gender (c2(1, N = 178) = 0.909, p = .340), education (c2(2, N = 181) = 0.545, p = .761). For the continuous control variables, four t-tests have been employed (see Table 2).
Every randomization check showed no significant results, meaning that all the randomizations of participants across experimental conditions were successful.
Results of the t-tests for the Randomization Checks of Continuous Variables Age, Political Leaning, Political Interest, and Privacy Concerns
Experimental conditions Control Manipulation t(181) p Cohen’s d
M SD M SD
Age 24.03 2.49 24.26 2.34 -0.625 .889 2.416
Political Leaning 3.76 1.97 4.13 1.87 -1.251 .540 1.925
Political Interest 2.25 .80 2.23 .80 0.150 .733 0.801
Privacy Concerns 5.14 1.31 5.06 1.29 0.426 .607 1.301
Note. An independent sample t-test was performed for each continuous control variable, i.e., age, political leaning, political interest, and privacy concerns. The variables’ mean values and standard deviation for each analysis are shown for the control group (n = 84) and the manipulation group (n = 95). Results of t-tests compare the estimates between the two groups, i.e., control and manipulation.
Statistical Analysis of the Causal Relationship Between Exposure to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal Information and Political Trust
The linear regression used to analyze the first hypothesis shows that exposure to content about the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal does not influence trust in politics in young Swiss citizens. The model was indeed not significant, F(1, 178) = 0.085, p = .770, N = 179, and the regression coefficients thus show that scandal information was not a predictor for political trust, b* = -.022, t = -.292, p = .770. Hypothesis one is thus rejected.
Figure 1 shows the difference between the two groups. The manipulated group did indeed have a lower level of political trust, but the non-significant results of the regression do not allow a trend to be justified.
Changes in Swiss Political Trust as a Function of Exposure to Cambridge Analytica Information
Note. Regression averages for political trust in the experiment are shown for the control and manipulation conditions.
Statistical Analysis of the Causal Relationship Between Exposure to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal Information and Political Trust Moderated by Prior CA Knowledge
The 2-way interaction variable between the IV and the moderator was included in the multiple linear regression to test the moderating effect of previous knowledge on the second hypothesis. The result showed that the exposure to CA information does not affect political trust, even when moderated by prior knowledge of the Cambridge Analytica scandal F(3, 160) = 0.609, p = .610, N = 163. Given the non-significant results of the model, the
coefficients confirmed the lack of this relationship, b* = .057, t = .319, p = .750. Therefore, the second hypothesis is also rejected.
In Figure 2, as for Figure 1, political trust is lower in the manipulated condition.
Surprisingly, higher prior knowledge resulted in a higher level of political trust, meaning the
opposite as hypothesized. Even if the trends cannot be confirmed due to the non-significant results, they will be later discussed in more detail.
Changes in Swiss Political Trust as a Function of the Interaction Between Exposure to Cambridge Analytica Information and Prior CA Scandal Knowledge
Note. Regression averages of the interaction effect between IV and prior knowledge in the experiment are shown for the control and manipulation conditions.
Statistical Analysis of the Causal Relationship Between Exposure to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal Information and the Likelihood of Rejecting the Proposed Law
The third hypothesis is tested through two linear regressions. For both regressions, the IV will be the binary variable exposure to control vs. manipulation. The DV, representing the increased likelihood of voting to reject the proposal, is tested through two continuous
variables representing a) the likelihood of voting for the proposed law and b) the degree of
support for it. Hypothesis 3a, meaning if the exposure to the manipulation increases the likelihood of voting, was rejected since there was no significant effect, F(1, 165) = .083, p = .773, N = 166. The regression coefficients also show that CA scandal information is not a fit predictor for an increased likelihood of voting among Swiss people, b* = -.022, t = -.289, p = .773. Hypotheses 3b, meaning that the exposure to CA information increases the likelihood to go voting to reject the hypothesis, is also rejected due to another non-significant result, F(1, 147) = 1.76, p = .187, N = 148, and the coefficients demonstrate not to be good predictors b*
= .109, t = 1.327, p = .187. Finally, also hypothesis three must be rejected.
Lastly, Figure 3 and Figure 4 show that not only are the results not significant, but the trends are opposite than expected. However, because of the lack of significance, one cannot be sure that the trend is actual and not just background noise.
Changes in Likelihood to Vote as a Function of Exposure to Cambridge Analytica Information
Note. Regression averages for the likelihood of voting are shown for the control and manipulation conditions.
Changes in Likelihood to Reject the Privacy Law as a Function of Exposure to Cambridge Analytica Information
Note. Regression averages for the likelihood of voting to reject the law are shown for the control and manipulation conditions.
The Effects of the Cambridge Analytica Privacy-Related Political Scandal on Swiss Political Trust
In this study, the researcher set out to discover if passivity towards privacy issues could be overcome through the exposure to the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal and whether this supposed feeling of insecurity may result in increased political distrust and a higher likelihood of rejecting intrusive law proposals on privacy rights. The findings that exposure to the CA privacy-related political scandal does not significantly lead to a decrease in political trust is not consistent with the literature that identified a link between greater awareness of a privacy-related political scandal, larger concerns about
privacy rights and data misuse, and consequent erosion of political trust (Bowler & Karp, 2004; Esteve, 2017; Kozlowska, 2018; Shipman & Marshall, 2020; von Sikorski, Heiss &
Matthes, 2020). Consequently, even though the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal has had essential repercussions that have burdened users’ concerns about their privacy and pushed a higher engagement with privacy settings (Brown, 2020; Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018; Hsu, 2018; Shipman & Marshall, 2020), this was not enough to trigger a drastic negative response to political trust.
The literature shows that privacy concerns do not suffice to push people into action, but apparently, the findings indicate that not even a privacy-related political scandal trigger does. Privacy concerns remain central and crucial even for the specific sample employed in the experiment (privacy concerns: M = 5.10, SD = 1.30, N = 179) and probably had the upper hand in the competition with exposure to the CA scandal information in influencing political trust in the Swiss Government. Users’ passivity has been demonstrated to be firm but
insufficient for demanding or wanting a change from the governments that implement these intrusive privacy regulations (Choi, Park, & Jung, 2018; Mittelstadt, 2016, p. 4992; Shillair et al., 2015; Stahl, 2016); a trend that the sample confirms. Besides the strong passivity towards privacy concerns, another possible reason why the stimulus did not have a significant effect on political trust in Switzerland could be identified in the geographical distance of the CA scandal from the sample, which is entirely Swiss. However, as González et al. (2019)
discussed, even if related to U.S. politics, Cambridge Analytica deepened the discussion and concerns related to political accountability on a world level and not just the American one, deepening the understanding of the risks associated with data breaches and in a European context where GDPR was developing (Privacy International, 2019). In addition, the Swiss citizenry is known for its high political trust, which is attested to be around 80% of the population is confident in their government (OECD, 2017). Therefore, even if in Switzerland data leaks are demonstrated to political trust (Davis Plüss, 2018), it could also be that
political trust was too strong to be shaken by the scandal. Lastly, besides being passive to information about privacy, users are getting frustrated with arguments on privacy laws (Fazzini, 2019), a characteristic that has maybe influenced their focus while reading the articles, that consequently translated into no significant difference between the experimental groups in the testing of the first hypothesis.
Reflection on the Missing Triad with the Moderator Prior CA Knowledge
Previous knowledge of the Cambridge Analytica scandal does not increase the impact of the main relationship. However, since the primary relationship was not significant in the first place, the moderating effect was not likely to succeed. Even if the literature demonstrates that the triad of prior scandal knowledge, scandal effects, and political trust is often
researched together since higher prior scandal knowledge produces “negative scandal- spillovers” on political trust (von Sikorski, Heiss & Matthes, 2020, p. 562-63), the results of this study are inconsistent with the one of the literature. This is surprising since, as
demonstrated by Shipman and Marshall (2020), greater awareness of the Cambridge
Analytica privacy-related political scandal converts into deeper concerns about privacy rights and increases demands on governments for corrections. However, resuming the literature on privacy fatigue, information about a privacy-related political scandal may have raised an already existing exhaustion and fatigue toward privacy (Choi, Park & Jung, 2018). Thus, even though the triad scandal response, prior knowledge and political trust are often used together, the decision to use this moderator could have activated feelings of overwhelming toward privacy that could have later biased the reading of both the control and manipulated version. In this regard, even though privacy concerns scored high in the sample, one should not forget the privacy paradox, i.e., saying to care about privacy while doing nothing to maintain or secure it, which could have influenced the results as well (Solove, 2021). Even
though people scored high on prior scandal knowledge, the powerful influence of privacy fatigue and privacy paradox may have likely been underrated.
Moreover, as highlighted in Figure 2, not only was the difference between the control and manipulated groups not significant, but participants with greater knowledge of the Cambridge Analytica scandal scored higher on political trust than those with less knowledge, the opposite effect predicted by the literature (Shipman and Marshall, 2020; von Sikorski, Heiss & Matthes, 2020). However, this result could reflect the privacy fatigue theory again since people in the manipulated conditions had more inputs related to privacy concerns, which could have neutralized the stimulus and translated into the opposite effect.
The Inviolable Characteristics of the Swiss Electorate
The findings show that exposure to the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal does not lead to higher support against the intrusive fictional law. Thus, the results are inconsistent with the literature that identified the suitable characteristics to study the effect of a privacy-related political scandal on the Swiss population. In this regard, political scandals, and analogically privacy-related political scandals, have intense repercussions on the electorate, which usually translate into a higher likelihood of voting to stand to defend their beliefs (Dahlberg & Solevid, 2016, p. 489; von Sikorski, 2018). In addition, for the specific case of Switzerland, considering its lower turnout but its pervasive referenda system (O’Sullivan, 2018; the Economist, 2021), it is surprising that there was first no significant effect, and second an inverse tendency (even if not confirmed by significant results) for the results of both hypotheses 3a and 3b (cf. Figure 3 and Figure 4). The participants in the manipulated condition were less likely to vote and more prone to support the proposed bill.
Although in both cases, the differences between the two groups were not significant, there is room for the interpretation that the Cambridge Analytica scandal may have been, once again, not so much a trigger for people to become more aware of their privacy concerns, but rather a
trigger for awakening that feeling of weariness and resignation about their privacy rights (Choi, Park & Jung, 2018; Solove, 2021). Besides, as exposed in the literature about scandal reaction, sometimes citizens withdraw their vote in response to a scandal due to distrust in the political process (Dahlberg & Solevid, 2016, p. 489; von Sikorski, 2018). In addition,
considering the specific characteristics of the Swiss sample, the manipulation may have been weak to subdue the entrenched Swiss voting fatigue that translated into the lower electoral turnout in Europe (Longchamp, 2022; O’Sullivan, 2018). Indeed, these characteristics of the Swiss sample may have remained dominant, and neither privacy concerns nor the Cambridge Analytica scandal has been able to change that.
Limitations and Future Research
Following some trends highlighted in the literature, this article aimed to investigate whether the presence of information about the Cambridge Analytica privacy-related political scandal can influence the political trust and voting behavior of young Swiss people.
However, statistical analysis of the hypotheses yielded non-significant results. In this regard, although the experiment proved to be well constructed, able to reach the desired sample, and with successful randomization and manipulation controls, the methodological and
experimental design features presented some limitations that may have affected the study.
Among things, a quasi-experimental factor could limit internal validity, understood as certainty that other factors did not influence the causal relationship. In addition, another feature of the study that could have decreased internal validity is that the environments in which the online experiment was conducted are unknown (Geuens & De Pelsmacker, 2017, p. 91). However, randomization of participants across experimental conditions is a crucial step in quasi-experimental designs that certainly enhance this validity (Chambliss & Schutt, 2018, p. 114).
In terms of generalizability and experimental utility, although not immediately understandable due to the geographic distance of the Cambridge Analytica scandal from the sample employed, the academic and social relevance of the study is indeed central and current in contemporary democracies. Considering the shift in the conceptualization of privacy in Western liberal democracies (Matzner & Ochs, 2019), it is only a matter of time before scandals of the magnitude of Cambridge Analytica reach Europe as well. In this regard, it was another huge privacy scandal, namely the Snowden revelations, that prompted European legislation to finalize GDPR regulations (Rossi, 2018). Privacy-related political scandals such as Cambridge Analytica are real and already flourishing in Western liberal democracies, and as the most notorious privacy scandal ever, it was certainly the right trigger despite the geographic distance and sample characteristics. However, considering theories such as the privacy paradox or privacy fatigue, it was probably ambitious to try to shake people into decisive responses of self-preservation and higher levels of political distrust just by showing some information about a scandal. Other possible limitations can be found in the sample. Even if it achieved its intended goals and size, the sample’s high level of education may have influenced the effect on political trust, as it has been shown that for Swiss citizens, low levels of education are correlated with lower levels of political trust (Scheidegger &
Future research should try to test privacy intrusion scandals with geographic proximity to see if the geographic distance was an important limitation for this study. In addition, the topic could be further explored by finding a new stimulus to break down privacy concerns and overcome privacy fatigue and privacy paradox theories. As long as these have the upper hand, no one will ever fight for their privacy to be protected as it should be by their governments.
This study aimed to address crucial yet unanswered research questions: do privacy- related political scandals influence political trust or voting behaviors? Recent data breaches and privacy scandals have been demonstrated to affect the actors’ perceptions. However, the research is often limited to the corporate actors, overlooking the political implications of privacy intrusions on the public debate and democracy. The advent of Cambridge Analytica marked an important milestone in acknowledging the possible consequences of privacy- related political scandals on political trust and voting behavior, showing that people could be shaken into a more dynamic behavior of self-preservation. However, in its peculiar
characteristics of citizens and voters, the Swiss sample did not react to the experiment as expected since no significance was found in the group subjected to the Cambridge Analytica scandal information. Future research should continue researching the effect that privacy- related political scandals can have on privacy concerns, political trust, and voting behavior since the trend of privacy intrusions seems far from its eclipse.
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Appendix Survey Experiment – Giorgia A. Casanova Default Question Block
Start of Block: Default Question Block.
Q1. Dear participant,
First, thank you for your interest in participating in this research project!
Before the experiment starts, it is important that you are well-informed about the procedure.
Therefore, we would like you to read this information letter carefully. Please do not hesitate to ask for clarification about this text or the general procedure. If anything is unclear, the researcher will gladly answer your questions.
In the following questionnaire we will ask your opinion about some general political issues and privacy related issues. This will give insights to answer the research question of a master thesis. Please read and answer the questions carefully and please always get to the end of the presented texts or you could miss important information. Participation in the study entails no risks or inconveniences and should take between 5-10 minutes maximum.
As this research is being carried out under the responsibility of the The Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), which is part of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), we can guarantee that:
A) It is important to note that the questionnaire is fully anonymous. We will not be able to identify the participants, so you should be free to answer according to your opinions and beliefs. We will only use the answers gathered for academic research, and under no
circumstances your data will be transmitted to other parties or used for commercial purposes.
B) You can obtain a summary of the research results. If you wish to receive this, please send an e-mail to the researcher (see below).
C) Participation is always voluntary, and all participants can refuse to participate in the research and can pull out at any time.
Should you have any complaints or comments about the course of the research and the procedures it involves because of your participation in this research, you can contact the designated member of the Ethics Review Board representing ASCoR via ascor‐secr‐
firstname.lastname@example.org. Any complaints or comments will be treated in the strictest confidence.
I hope to have provided you with sufficient information. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you in advance for your assistance with this research, which I greatly appreciate.
For more information about the research you are welcome to contact the researcher.
All the best,
Giorgia A. Casanova (email@example.com) Page Break
Q2. If you would like to participate in the survey, click on “Yes” below. With this you declare:
• I am 16 years or older.
• I have read and understood the information.
• I agree to participate in the study and to use the data obtained with it.
• I reserve the right to withdraw this consent without giving any reason.
• I reserve the right to stop the study at any time I wish.
o Yes, I participate (1)
o No, I am not participating (2)
Skip To: End of Survey If If you would like to participate in the survey, click on “Yes” below.
With this you declare:I am... = No, I am not participating
End of Block: Default Question Block.
Block 1 – Socio-demographic questions
Start of Block: Block 1 - Socio-demographic questions.
Q3. First, a few questions about yourself, which will help us to interpret the results.
What year were you born? (e.g., 1998)
Q4. What is your gender?
o Male (1) o Female (2)
o Non-binary / third gender (3) o Prefer not to say (4)
Q5. In which country have you lived most of your life?
Q6. What is the highest level of school you have completed or the highest degree you have received? If you are currently a student, please select the diploma you are expected to obtain at the end of your cursus.
o No complete education (1) o Primary education (2) o Secondary education (3) o High school or equivalent (4)
o Post-obligatory technical education (5)
o Undergraduate university degree (Bachelor) (6) o Graduate university degree (Masters) (7)
o Doctoral degree (PhD, MD, JD) or equivalent (8) o Other (please specify) (9)
Q7. In politics people sometimes talk of “left” or “right”. “0” stands for someone that is positioned fully on the “left”, “10” for someone that is positioned fully on the “right”.
When you think of your own position, where would you place yourself on this scale?
Very left Neutral Very right Not Applicable
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Move the circle ()
Q8. How much interest do you usually have in what is going on in politics?
o Very interested (1) o Somewhat interested (2) o Not very interested (3) o Not at all interested (4) o Don’t know (5)
End of Block: Block 1 - Socio-demographic questions.