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Chapter 3. Is my mobile phone listening to me?

Conspiratorial thinking, digital literacies, and everyday encounters with surveillance

image of Chapter 3. Is my mobile phone listening to me?

Despite denials from tech executives, fact-checks from journalists and explanations from security experts, the “conspiracy theory” that internet companies listen to people’s conversations via the microphones in their mobile phones persists. This paper explores the ways people make sense of their everyday encounters with digital surveillance, and how they engage with or resist conspiratorial thinking in the context of the actual conspiracies implicated in the exploitative business models of tech companies. It examines how people talk about their lived experiences of being monitored, and how they work together with others to construct improvised epistemologies to explain them. The data come from a corpus of online discussions on digital surveillance from Reddit, YouTube and Quora. The analysis suggests while the theories that grow out of personal stories of digital surveillance may not be technologically accurate, they still constitute a kind of emerging digital literacy, a collective effort to make sense of and take a stance against the intrusive practices of tech companies. Such talk also serves a social function, providing people with ways to collectively narrativize their feelings of dwindling autonomy and to work together to formulate strategies to cope with complex technological and economic forces influencing contemporary communication.

  • Affiliations: 1: University of Reading

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