How & Why the Press Sometimes “Sells Digital Fear”

by on April 8, 2012 · 3 comments

Yesterday on TechCrunch, Josh Constine posted an interesting essay about how some in the press were “Selling Digital Fear” on the privacy front. His specific target was The Wall Street Journal, which has been running an ongoing investigation of online privacy issues with a particular focus on online apps. Much of the reporting in their “What They Know” series has been valuable in that it has helped shine light on some data collection practices and privacy concerns that deserve more scrutiny. But as Constine notes, sometimes the articles in the WSJ series lack sufficient context, fail to discuss trade-offs, or do not identify any concrete harm or risk to users. In other words, some of it is just simple fear-mongering. Constine argues:

Reality has yet to stop media outlets from yelling about privacy, and because the WSJ writers were on assignment, they wrote the “Selling You On Facebook” hit piece despite thin findings. These kind of articles can make mainstream users so worried about the worst-case scenario of what could happen to their data, they don’t see the value they get in exchange for it. “Selling You On Facebook” does bring up the important topic of how apps can utilize personal data granted to them by their users, but it overstates the risks. Yes, the business models of Facebook and the apps on its platform depend on your personal information, but so do the services they provide. That means each user needs to decide what information to grant to who, and Facebook has spent years making the terms of this value exchange as clear as possible.

“While sensationalizing the dangers of online privacy sure drives page views and ad revenue,” Constine also noted, “it also impedes innovation and harms the business of honest software developers.” These trade-offs are important because, to the extent policymakers get more interested in pursing privacy regulations based on these fears, they could force higher prices or less innovation upon us with very little benefit in exchange.

Of course, the press generating hypothetical fears or greatly inflating dangers is nothing new. We have seen it happen many times in the past and it can be seen at work in many other fields today (online child safety is a good example). In my recent 80-page paper on “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” I discussed how and why the press and other players inflate threats and sell fear. Here’s a passage from my paper:

“The most obvious reason that doomsday fears get disproportionate public attention is that bad news is newsworthy, and frightening forecasts cause people to sit up and take notice,” Julian Simon astutely observed in 1996.[1] That is equally true today.[2] Many media outlets and sensationalist authors sometimes use fear-based rhetorical devices to gain influence or sell books. “Opportunists will take advantage of this fear for personal and institutional gain,” notes University of Colorado Law School professor Paul Ohm.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] “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.”[6]

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.”[7] 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.

And that’s why we shouldn’t expect these fear tactics and threat inflation to dissipate any time soon. Although education and fact-based awareness efforts can help alleviate some of these problems, the reality is that Chicken Little tactics will always trump dispassionate, level-headed analysis. Prophets of doom will always have a congregation. Plenty of politicians and policy pundits have long known this. Sadly, not even the press is immune from wanting to play this game.

[1]     Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 539–40. Simon adds, “It is easier to get people’s attention (and television time and printer’s ink) with frightening forecasts than soothing forecasts.” Ibid., 583.

[2]     “Many perceived ‘epidemics’ are in reality no such thing, but instead the product of media coverage of gripping, unrepresentative incidents.” Cass Sunstein, Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 102.

[3]     Paul Ohm, “The Myth of the Superuser: Fear, Risk, and Harm Online,” UC Davis Law Review 41, no. 4 (2008), 1401.

[4]     Ridley, The Rational Optimist, 294.

[5]      “On a very basic level, the news media also benefit by telling us emotional stories about the trouble that kids may find themselves in . . . Bad news about kids encapsulates our fears for the future, gives them a face and a presence, and seems to suggest a solution.” Karen Sternheimer, Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions about Today’s Youth (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 152.

[6]     Michael Burns, “UK a ‘High Use, Some Risk’ Country for Kids on the Web,” Computerworld, October 18, 2011,

[7]     Shermer, The Believing Brain, 275.



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