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Exploring Definitional Power in the Digital Age: A Case Study of Right to be Forgotten Framing



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Larsen, Rebekah 


How is power exercised in the digital age, in and through meaning creation? Relatedly, how should sociologists approach analysis of such power? My dissertation seeks to answer these questions through empirical examination of a definitional process. The case study of this dissertation is a recently codified yet controversial network privacy concept: the Right to be Forgotten (RTBF).

I use a research framework informed by concepts of media and symbolic power, as well as Hall’s ‘primary definers’ thesis. I employ a necessarily mixed methods approach, which has allowed me to identify and situate RTBF framing in terms of certain political, economic, cultural, and social contexts. Approaching the open web as a ‘networked public sphere’, I mapped a RTBF topical hyperlink network of thousands of stories and sources online. Links between sources provided data on the visibility—and thus relative dominance—of certain framings over time. These network findings in turn guided qualitative analyses of texts and semi-structured interviews from actors positioned across the network. I triangulated analysis of these data sources, and the findings are laid out in the empirical chapters.

First, I demonstrate that a dominant set of framings connect the RTBF to discourse of human rights and the ‘information society’. I argue that the visibility and salience of these framings cannot be separated from the historical and political power of neoliberal human rights discourse. This discourse links human rights to information (and market) access, technology, and socioeconomic progress. In US and UK media, these connections manifest as the RTBF is framed in opposition to free speech; in Latin America, they relatedly also manifest in framings of the RTBF as against a region-specific ‘Right to Remember’. Next, through examining economic framing of the RTBF, I argue that the larger political economy of personal information—surveillance capitalism—has deeply informed the RTBF definitional process. This context has led economic actors to wield considerable definitional power to influence framing of the RTBF, given its connection to control of personal data. Dominant framing of the RTBF in turn can thus bolster the definitional power of surveillance capitalists; indeed, I show that media actors such as search engines and the established press utilized the RTBF discursive space for their own positioning in the media ecosystem. I also show in the first two chapters how conditions of surveillance capitalism are impacting the social organization of newsrooms—and the concomitant impact on RTBF framing.

Finally, I focus on a set of frames that were less visible in the network—and relatedly, connected to social groups that are consistently marginalized in the ‘networked public sphere’. More specifically, in focusing on RTBF framings (or lack thereof) related to gender, race, and colonialism, I show how distribution of definitional power (or lack thereof) contributes to historic, ongoing, systematic exclusion from a white, European, male-dominated (networked) public sphere. These findings also allow insight into surveillance capitalism as a system of dispossession. I explore how gender rights activists, in Latin America and the US, initially conceived of the RTBF as a tool in long-standing gendered battles of public participation and violence online. Yet these framings occupy the fringes of the network, due in part to the structural positionality of sources and their limited resources. I also explore how powerful US and UK sources co- opt and colonize Latin American-specific discourse to further their positions.

This dissertation provides much-needed insight into how slippery definitions can be pinned down to the benefit of certain actors. It also explores how definitional power—tied to the discourse and structures that contextualize the RTBF—is at play in this process. This dissertation thus contributes to ongoing sociological inquiry into connections between media and power in the modern, ‘digital’ age. This research also addresses a dearth of empirical work in this arena, furthering understanding of how an important social boundary—the private vs. the public—is negotiated today.





McPherson, Ella


digital sociology, privacy, network methods, media studies


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge