I want to highly recommend everyone watch this interesting new talk by danah boyd on “Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?!” In her talk, danah discusses “how fear gets people into a frenzy” or panic about new technologies and new forms of culture. “The culture of fear is the idea that fear can be employed by marketers, politicians, the media, and the public to really regulate the public… such that they can be controlled,” she argues. “Fear isn’t simply the product of natural forces. It can systematically be generated to entice, motivate, or suppress. It can be leveraged as a political tool and those in power have long used fear for precisely these goals.” I discuss many of these issues in my new 80-page white paper, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.”
danah points out that new media is often leveraged to generate fear and so we should not be surprised when the Internet and digital technologies are used in much the same way. She also correctly notes that our cluttered, cacophonous information age might also be causing an escalation of fear-based tactics. “The more there are stimuli competing for your attention, the more likely it is that fear is going to be the thing that will drive your attention” to the things that some want you to notice or worry about.
I spent some time in my technopanics paper discussing this point in Section III.C (“Bad News Sells: The Role of the Media, Advocates, and the Listener.”) Here’s the relevant passage:
Fear mongering and prophecies of doom have always been with us, since they represent easy ways to attract attention and get heard. “Pessimism has always been big box office,” notes [Matt] Ridley. This is even more true in the midst of the modern information age cacophony. Breaking through all the noise is hard when competition for our eyes and ears is so intense. It should not be surprising, therefore, that sensationalism and alarmism are used as media differentiation tactics. This is particularly true as it relates to kids and online safety. “Unbalanced headlines and confusion have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds public discourse on children’s use of new technology,” argues Professor Sonia Livingstone of the London School Economics. “Panic and fear often drown out evidence.”
Sadly, most of us are eager listeners and lap up bad news, even when it is overhyped, exaggerated, or misreported. [Michael] Shermer notes that psychologists have identified this phenomenon as “negativity bias,” or “the tendency to pay closer attention and give more weight to negative events, beliefs, and information than to positive.” Negativity bias, which is closely related to the phenomenon of “pessimistic bias” … is frequently on display in debates over online child safety, digital privacy, and cybersecurity.
Unfortunately, as danah correctly notes in her remarks, “it’s extremely difficult to combat fear [but] it’s extremely easy to ramp it up.” Worse yet, “it’s impossible to combat fear with statistics.” As I note in my paper, fear-tactics are remarkably powerful rhetorical devices that can be enormously challenging to overcome. However, I remain a bit more optimistic than danah that facts and common sense can prevail eventually. After all, most panics don’t last. They fizzle out after a time. I’d like to believe that part of the reason they do is because facts, education, awareness, and reasonable discussion all combine to debunk fears and help us cope with the realities of cultural or technological change. On the other hand, as I note in the paper, it may instead simply be the case that one panic crowds out an older one! As I note in the paper (on pgs. 42-3):
Perhaps it is the case that the unique factors that combine to create technopanics tend to dissipate more rapidly over time precisely because technological changes continue to unfold at such a rapid clip. Maybe there is something about human psychology that “crowds out” one panic as new fears arise. Perhaps the media and elites lose interest in the panic du jour and move on to other issues. Finally, people may simply learn to accommodate cultural and economic changes. Indeed, some of things that evoke panic in one generation come to be worshiped (or at least respected) in another. As The Economist magazine recently noted, “There is a long tradition of dire warnings about new forms of media, from translations of the Bible into vernacular languages to cinema and rock music. But as time passes such novelties become uncontroversial, and eventually some of them are elevated into art forms.” These topics and explanations are ripe for future study.
danah also notes that “one of the frustrating thing about my job these days is that I’m dealing with the idea that ‘protect the kids’ becomes justification for regulating the Internet in any way you can possibly imagine.” Of course, that’s nothing new. “It’s for the children!” is the mantra we hear regularly in media and Internet policy debates. [Some of you might find my mock testimony on this front to be humorous: "It’s For the Children: A Template for Hill Testimony on Child Safety Issues."] In my paper, I devote a great deal of time to explaining how generational differences and fears about the impact of technology on society–especially the young–accounts for a large part of the pessimism at work in debates over these issues.
Anyway, please listen to danah’s talk. It’s well worth your time. And I hope some of you will read my paper as well.
Note: All my TLF essays on moral panics and technopanics can be found here.