Big Data and The Phantom Public: Walter Lippmann and the Fallacy of Data Privacy Self-Management

48 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2013 Last revised: 1 Dec 2015

See all articles by Jonathan A. Obar

Jonathan A. Obar

York University; Quello Center - Michigan State University

Date Written: August 20, 2015


In 1927, Walter Lippmann published the Phantom Public, arguing for what he referred to as the fallacy of democracy. He wrote, “I have not happened to meet anybody, from a President of the United States to a professor of political science, who came anywhere near to embodying the accepted ideal of the sovereign and omnicompetent citizen” (Lippmann, 1927, 11). Repurposing Lippmann, this paper argues that recent calls for individuals to have control over their big data by the Federal Trade Commission, the White House and the U.S. Congress present a comparable fallacy of data privacy self-management. Had we the faculties and the system for self-management, the digital citizen has little time for data governance. This challenge should be seen as an extension of a longstanding self-governance debate, exemplified by the works of John Dewey and Walter Lippmann. Both framed their arguments in opposition to a system struggling to find an autonomous and efficacious role for the citizen. In the current context, Lippmann’s pragmatism does more to champion citizen empowerment than Dewey’s call for direct participation, by calling attention to the impracticality of data privacy self-management. If it is true that the fallacy of democracy is similar to the fallacy of data privacy self-management, then perhaps the pragmatic solution is representative data management; a combination of non/for-profit digital dossier management via infomediaries that can ensure the protection of personal data, while freeing individuals from what Lippmann referred to as an ‘unattainable ideal.’

Keywords: Telecommunication policy, information policy, big data, data mining, data sovereignty

Suggested Citation

Obar, Jonathan A., Big Data and The Phantom Public: Walter Lippmann and the Fallacy of Data Privacy Self-Management (August 20, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Jonathan A. Obar (Contact Author)

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Quello Center - Michigan State University ( email )

East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

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