Skip to main content


Front. Polit. Sci., 14 September 2023
Sec. Political Participation
Volume 5 - 2023 |

Editorial: Contemporary threats, surveillance, and the balancing of security and liberty

  • 1Institute for Social Sciences, University of Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany
  • 2Working Group of Empirical Political Science, Department of Political Science, University of Duisburg-Essen, Duisburg, Germany
  • 3Department of Community Psychology, University of Hagen, Hagen, Germany


Several recent developments, such as the Russian war against Ukraine, ongoing terrorist attacks, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have challenged established structures and changed the lives of many people. They also have fuelled scholarly and public debate about how democracies might deal with different kinds of threats. Reflections on the political consequences of threats are particularly important in times where several political leaders or parties seem to offer simple solutions to fears that they themselves fuel (Trüdinger, 2019, p. 6). In this Research Topic, we address the question of how citizens politically react to threatening situations and counteracting government actions—such as surveillance policies.

Political science research on these issues has a long tradition in certain areas, and the present topic builds on some of these: Studies on political tolerance emphasized early the importance of perceived threats for intolerant attitudes toward specific groups (e.g., Sullivan et al., 1981). In studies on civil liberties, perceived threats, especially from terrorism, are reported as central motives for public acceptance of different types of civil liberties restrictions (e.g., Davis and Silver, 2004), but questions remain about the political effects of different kinds of (perceived) threat. A prominent line of research examines how individual dispositions condition the ways in which perceived threats influence political views and behaviors of citizens: Altemeyer (1988) and many others emphasize that people with authoritarian dispositions are highly sensitive to threat. Moreover, research on individual information processing has become more important since the COVID-19 pandemic: Perceptions of the world as threatening and uncertain are reported to have consequences for how individuals cope with (mis)information (e.g., Heiss et al., 2021).

New perspectives

Our Research Topic ties in with these research areas. By leveraging experimental designs, the articles add current perspectives on how citizens react to contemporary threats and government responses to these threats: First, all papers discuss the contemporary relevance of ideology and partisanship for dealing with threats to security, liberty, and independent democratic discourse. Such a discussion is of particular importance in times where strongly opposing parties and political agendas influence political debates, and polarization between ideological camps has intensified in many Western democracies (e.g., Wagner, 2021).

Second, the studies conducted by Jäger and Trüdinger and Ziller address aspects of the particular challenge to the balance between security and liberty posed by new (technological) developments in surveillance and the Internet. A third focus of the Research Topic is to examine the ways in which individuals cope with uncertainty and extremism when exposed to different types of political information (e.g., framing of specific groups, misinformation, crisis-related information). Finally, the contributions provide insights into public opinion in three different countries (United States, Spain, Germany), and all of them shed light on situational and dispositional factors that may protect democracies against anti-democratic threats.

Short summary of the Research Topic

The contribution of Hirsch sheds light on a less-studied facet of authoritarianism, with an experimental design in which people are confronted with serious societal threats in the context of COVID-19 and climate change. In her study of crisis-related authoritarianism in Spain and Germany, she takes up the argument of a context-dependent activation of authoritarian dispositions. Individuals are found to be more supportive of authoritarian solutions when the latter are put forward in the context of collective problems. The study shows how the framing of collective challenges can shift the dynamics of public opinion.

The article by Trüdinger and Ziller examines determinants of political tolerance of three political groups (right-wing, left-wing, and religious) using a factorial experiment. Specifically, the experiment randomly varied whether groups appear as being extremist or violent, and whether they occur in an offline or online setting. The results of the study reveal that citizens indeed set limits to tolerance if groups appear to have violent intentions. Respondents are also more likely to tolerate online (compared to offline) behavior. While citizens are more tolerant toward ideologically congruent groups, such an ideological bias is disrupted if groups are portrayed as being violent. The findings by Trüdinger and Ziller thus highlight the relevance of contextual factors for citizens' tolerance judgments.

The article by Jäger examines the role of political party preferences for citizen views on state surveillance. Using a factorial survey experiment in Germany, the author isolates the circumstances under which citizens are ready to support a surveillance policy proposal. While the dimensions of threat and terrorist motivation (religious, right-wing, or climate-radical) are not systematically related to policy support, the policy scope (targeted vs. dragnet) matters, as well as which party proposed the policy (Greens vs. the right-wing populist AfD). Similarly to Trüdinger and Ziller, Jäger finds an ideological gradient: People who oppose a party are more reluctant in supporting a policy that this party proposes. The study thus highlights that partisanship matters for far more than typical issues along the socio-cultural left-right continuum such as immigration and integration.

As political antecedents of conspiracy endorsement, Jiang examines the role of political ideology, knowledge, and political participation in the highly polarized society of the United States. While political conspiracies are often viewed as a response to threats of electoral loss, widespread beliefs in misinformation can themselves become a danger to the democratic rules of the game. Focussing on selected conservative and liberal conspiracy theories, the author not only shows that people tend to endorse ideologically aligned misinformation and that political knowledge positively relates to conspirational thinking. The study also highlights that participation increases the endorsement of liberal but not conservative conspiracies.

Author contributions

E-MT: Writing—original draft, Writing—review and editing. CZ: Writing—original draft, Writing—review and editing. JN: Writing—review and editing.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


Altemeyer, B. (1988). Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right-Wing Authoritarianism. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Google Scholar

Davis, D. W., and Silver, B. D. (2004). Civil liberties vs. security: public opinion in the context of the terrorist attacks on America. Am. J. Polit. Sci. 48, 28–46. doi: 10.1111/j.0092-5853.2004.00054.x

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Heiss, R., Gell, S., Röthlingshöfer, E., and Zoller, C. (2021). How threat perceptions relate to learning and conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19: evidence from a panel study. Pers. Individ. Dif. 175, 110672. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2021.110672

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Sullivan, J. L., Marcus, G. E., Feldman, S., and Piereson, J. E. (1981). The sources of political tolerance: a multivariate analysis. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 75, 92–106. doi: 10.2307/1962161

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Trüdinger, E.-M. (2019). Perceptions of Threat and Policy Attitudes: The Case of Support for Anti-terrorism Policies in Germany. Habilitation thesis: University of Stuttgart. doi: 10.18419/opus-10993

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Wagner, M. (2021). Affective polarization in multiparty systems. Elect. Stud. 69, 102199. doi: 10.1016/j.electstud.2020.102199

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Keywords: civil liberties and rights, security, public opinion, survey experiment, surveillance, threat, political ideology

Citation: Trüdinger E-M, Ziller C and van der Noll J (2023) Editorial: Contemporary threats, surveillance, and the balancing of security and liberty. Front. Polit. Sci. 5:1266135. doi: 10.3389/fpos.2023.1266135

Received: 24 July 2023; Accepted: 01 September 2023;
Published: 14 September 2023.

Edited and reviewed by: Yuan Wang, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China

Copyright © 2023 Trüdinger, Ziller and van der Noll. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Eva-Maria Trüdinger,