Culture of Fear: Danah Boyd

Webstock '12: danah boyd - Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?! from Webstock on Vimeo.

The Power of Fear in Networked Publics
danah boyd
Webstock (Wellington New Zealand): February 16, 2012
SXSW (Austin Texas): March 10, 2012

Background: I gave versions of this talk at two different conferences. At Webstock, it was called “Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?!” At SXSW, it was called “The Power of Fear in Networked Publics.” A video of the Webstock version is available here. This is a VERY rough unedited crib of the actual talk. The target audience for both talks was geeky in nature; both conferences are filled with entrepreneurs, designers, and developers. This is not an academic talk, although I do try to introduce some academic concepts to a public audience.

This talk is a work-in-progress. I’m trying to think through these ideas and am still struggling with many of them. Feedback is always welcome. zephoria@zephoria.org .
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Citation: boyd, danah. 2012. “The Power of Fear in Networked Publics.” SXSW. Austin, Texas, March 10.

Introduction

My talk today rests on three foundational claims and one critical question.

Foundational Claims:
1. We live in a culture of fear.
2. The attention economy provides fertile ground for the culture of fear.
3. Social media is amping up the attention economy.

Thus, my question is simple: as technologists and designers invested in developing the future, what hath we wrought?

The goal of my talk today is to explore the role of social media in perpetuating the culture of fear. How do those using social media leverage fear? How is fear spread through social media? When and where can technology combat fear? What are the social costs of that fear?

When it comes to talking about social media, it’s easy to get trapped in utopian and dystopian rhetorics. My goal is not to go down one of these rabbit holes, but rather, to critically interrogate our participation in the culture of fear. Many of you are technologists, designers, pundits, and users. How are we contributing to or combating the culture of fear? What are our responsibilities with regard to the culture of fear? What kinds of things can and should we do?

Technology can be a very powerful tool, but it behooves us not to think of it as neutral. One of my favorite maxims about the role of technology in society is called Kranzberg’s First Law. He argues that “technology is neither good nor bad – nor is it neutral.” Given this, it’s irresponsible to assume that the tools we’re building just wander out into the world with only positive effects. What we design and how we design it matters. And how our systems are used also matters, even if those uses aren’t what we intended.

I am a geek. And in many ways, this talk is directed at other geeks. As geeky tools have gone mainstream, those of us who are contributing to the production and dissemination of them need to really consider our role in these cultural processes. Technology is no longer just about the geeks. Social media is no longer just about the geeks. And, regardless of how much we may wish otherwise, our tools are not geek-ifying mainstream values. So while many of us geeks may want to play ostrich and live in our special geek bubble, that’s neither responsible nor practical. It’s time that we understand that our systems have power. And, as a result, our decisions have consequences.

CULTURE OF FEAR

To begin, let’s talk about the culture of fear.

The term “the culture of fear” refers to the ways in which fear is employed by marketers, politicians, technology designers [e.g., consider security narratives] and the media to regulate the public. Fear isn’t just a product of natural forces. It can be systematically generated to entice, motivate, and suppress people. Those in power have long used fear to control the populous. “Terrorism” – for example – is the systematic use of fear to achieve political goals. The culture of fear is what emerges when fear is used at such a widespread level that it shapes people’s worldviews.

Fear is an important emotion. It’s a reasonable psychological reaction to uncertainty and threat. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s what allows us to assess a risky situation and determine a response. Fear can be learned through experience. Burn yourself and you’ll develop a healthy, respectful fear of fire.

Fear can also be enticing. Extreme sports as well as activities like bungee jumping and skydiving allow you to turn fear into endorphins to get a nice high. Overcoming fear is part of the fun.

Yet, fear can also be a tool of control. 9/11 was a traumatic day for many people. In the days that followed, people scrambled to understand what was going on and to get their heads around the potential threat that they faced in their community. This is not the first time that America has felt such confusion and chaos. Read accounts of what happened around the Cuban Missile Crisis and you’ll hear a similar set of fears borne out of uncertainty. But where post-9/11 narratives deviate from the Cuban Missile Crisis concerns how fear was employed by the military-industrial-Congressional complex. In the United States, we’ve been on Orange alert for over a decade now. Fear is used to justify the security theater that we see in our airports. Turn on any news station and your blood will start to boil in short order.

Fear is useful because it makes people pay attention and, as such, follow orders. But part of why it works is that people are terrible at assessing risks and intellectually responding to fear-mongering. Fear works on an emotional response that is not necessarily rational.

Over the years, countless books have been written about people’s inability to do reasonable risk assessment. Freakonomics is probably the most well-known of these books, but I’m still a huge fan of Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear.

Part of what I love about Barry’s book is that he highlights the role of media in this ecosystem. Let me share one of his stories. After a series of older women go mugged in the 1990s, the news media started reporting on how elderly were at-risk going out onto the streets. The messages that they shared were very scary, highlighting all of the terrible things that could happen to older women. In the months following this news coverage, more elderly died of starvation out of fear of leaving their homes than were ever mugged. This is a moment of where fear, combined with poor risk assessment, results in deadly consequences.

Most of where fear and risk assessment combine are more mundane, but they highlight the hypocrisy in people’s decision-making processes. As a scholar who studies youth culture, parents regularly come up to me and ask what’s the #1 thing that they should do to keep their kids safe. They really want to hear something like “don’t let them on Facebook” or “don’t give them a cell phone.” Their idea of what they should fear is all about new technology. No one is prepared for my response: “Don’t let them get into a car with you.” Invariably, they twist their faces in confusion as I explain that statistically, children are more at-risk in a car than in any other setting they encounter, regardless of who’s driving. To a parent, the car “feels” safe because they feel as though they’re in control. They feel as though they understand the care. Things like the internet do not feel safe because they feel out of control and that they don’t know how these newfangled things operate. Feel is the operative word here; it’s all about perception. Fear is not predicated on risk assessment, but the perception of risk.

We fear the things – and people — that we do not understand far more than the things we do, even if the latter are much more risky. For this reason, it’s not surprising that people fear technology. Its newness is confusing and no one’s quite certain what to do with the promises it offers. Furthermore, technology allows us to see people who are different than us, the very people we are likely to fear. We fear the unknown. And technology is both an unknown itself and a vehicle to connecting us to greater unknowns.

Our fears are amplified when they intersect with our insecurities and challenge our ability to be in control. Nowhere is this more palpable then when it comes to a parent’s desire to protect their child. Much to my frustration, fear is the dominant emotion that drives our society’s relationship to young people. We are afraid FOR them. And we are afraid OF them. We’re afraid of all of the ways in which our children might be harmed. And we’re afraid of all of the things that children might do to disrupt the status quo.

Needless to say, put technology and children into the same sentence and you’ve got a bucket full of fear. Welcome to my world. Online sexual predators. Bullying. Pornography. File-sharing. Sexting. The intersection of youth and technology can pretty universally be described as MORAL PANIC. Moral panics emerge whenever something new happens that disrupts the social order in a way that makes people anxious and afraid. Every new technology has sparked a moral panic. My favorite historical technology moral panic occurred shortly after the sewing machine was invented. Elders worried that women’s purity would be destroyed if women spent all day rubbing their legs up and down together. New genres of content also trigger moral panics. Children’s consumption of comic books triggered mass hysteria. Social media is both a new technology and a new genre of content. No wonder people are panicking.

Some days, I think that my only purpose in life is to serve as broken record, trying desperately to remind people that “the kids are alright” … “the kids are alright” … “the kids are alright.”

The difficulty with societal level fears is that it’s impossible to combat them through data. This tendency is well studied in social psychology, but its existence doesn’t make combating it any easier. Even the most educated of parents find no relief in statistics. Yet, tell a scary story – regardless of how anomalous it is – and you’re bound to spin everyone into a frenzy. Why? It’s extraordinarily easy to generate fear. And a hell of a lot harder to calm it down.

The fact that people are susceptible to fear-mongering is what makes them vulnerable to manipulation by those who want to generate fear. To look closer at this dynamic, let’s turn for a moment to consider the role of attention.

THE ATTENTION ECONOMY

This brings me to my second claim: The attention economy provides fertile ground for the culture of fear.

In the 1970s, the scholar Herbert Simon argued that “in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”

His arguments give rise both to the notion of “information overload” but also to the “attention economy.” In the attention economy, people’s willingness to distribute their attention to various information stimuli create value for said stimuli. Indeed, the economic importance of advertisements is predicated on the notion that getting people to pay attention to something has value.

News media is tightly entwined with the attention economy. Newspapers try to capture people’s attentions through headlines. TV and radio stations try to entice people to not change the channel. And, indeed, there is a long history of news media leveraging fear to grab attention, often with a reputational cost. Yellow journalism tarnished newspapers’ credibility with scary headlines intended to generate sales. The history of radio and television is sullied with propaganda as political ideologues leveraged social psychology to shape the public’s opinion.

Now, along comes social media… Needless to say, social media brings with it massive quantities of information – unscripted, unedited, and uncurated. Going online is like swimming in an ocean of information. The very notion of being able to consume everything is laughable, although many people are still struggling to come to terms with “information overload.” Some respond by avoiding environments where they’ll be exposed to too much information. Others try to develop complicated tactics to achieve balance. Still others are miserable failing to find a way of dealing with information that is comfortable for them. (Don’t worry: there are lots of self-help books out there.)

The amount of information being produced overwhelmingly exceeds the amount of information you can possibly pay attention to. My favorite response to this is what computer scientist Michael Bernstein describes as going “Twitter Zen.” This is the happy state people reach when they let go of control and just embrace the information firehose.

This shift is relatively new which is what causes so much consternation. A few years ago, my brother and I were going through some old stuff at my mother’s house when we came across a book that he had purchased in 1994. It was a Yellow Pages for the Internet. We burst out laughing because the very notion that you could capture all webpages in a physical directory is absolutely ridiculous today. And yet, somehow, people still think that they should read all blog posts in their feed readers or all tweets in their Twitter stream. In fact, most of our tools are designed to make us feel guilty when we’ve left things “unread.”

No matter how we feel about the massive amounts of information, one thing’s clear: the amount of information is not going to decline any time soon. Given the increase of information and media, those who want people to consume their material are fighting an uphill battle to get their attention. Anyone who does social media marketing knows how hard it is to capture people’s attention in this new ecosystem.

The more stimuli there are competing for your attention, the more that attention seekers must fight to capture your attention. More often than not, this results in psychological warfare as attention-seekers leverage any and all emotions to draw you in.

And here’s where we see fear entering back into the picture. Because fear is a biological mechanism to get people’s attention, we see people turning to fear as a tool to get people’s attention. Fear is an extraordinarily effective emotion to leverage. Fear is especially powerful in an environment where the available attention is limited.

If you pay attention to threatening stimuli, fear emerges. At the same time, the presence of fear gets your attention. The two – fear and attention – work hand in hand. This is why the attention economy provides fertile soil for the culture of fear.

We pay attention to the emotion of fear because it helps us protect ourselves and those around us. Our willingness to pay attention to fearful stimuli is precisely why it’s possible to create a culture of fear. We are far too willing to consume information that makes us afraid because we feel as though we want that information in order to protect ourselves.

Fear-mongerers leverage our willingness to pay attention to fearful stimuli in order to generate attention. A fearful newspaper headline captures people’s attention. This draws people into paying attention to the newspaper as a whole, which is precisely the intention of headlines. Likewise, when TV anchors are spouting off fearful information, people are far less willing to turn the channel. Again, this is of interest to the television network.

With social media, the intersection is messier. There are certainly broadcast messages being communicated from far off, but the majority of attention-seeking takes place in the world of user-generated content. This creates an ecosystem where hysteria isn’t necessarily from on high, but, rather, all around us.

Interestingly to me, fear on social media isn’t just employed by marketers, pundits, and politicians. It’s increasingly used by everyone. My work focuses on teen culture so I see a lot of this through that lens. I watch as parents use fear in an effort to get their kids to pay attention to them. I watch as teens use fear in order to get attention from their peers. Teens and parents both develop an acute sense for what will grab their interlocutors’ attention. Attention is indeed the currency of contemporary society. Hysteria is one element of this, whether it plays out as fear-mongering or simply drama. Many of the teen practices that adults deplore the most stem from the desire to capture attention in an attention economy. Yet, adults are by no means innocent of this. They too use fear to get attention. Thus, can we really blame teens for trying to master this adult-defined landscape?

THE ROLE OF RADICAL TRANSPARENCY

Now that we have a foundation for understand the culture of fear and the attention economy, I want to consider some of the ideology of the Web2.0 / social media ecosystem and what this means for the culture of fear. Let’s start with radical transparency.

Radical transparency is the notion that putting everything out into the open will make people more honest. It is often discussed as an extreme form of accountability for corporate actors, but it can also be understood in a social context. In this light, radical transparency is used to force people out into the open. The logic here rests on the notion that people hide things in private that they wouldn’t admit to if they were in public. Thus, in theory, their public selves are more honest than their private selves.

Most technologists who obsess over radical transparency focus on the need for those in power – government officials, famous people, corporate actors, etc. – to be transparent. Many proponents of radical transparency believe that forcing powerful people into the open will reduce corruption, produce honesty, and induce tolerance. Thus, there’s often a desire by proponents to engage in acts of exposure, forcing people out into the open out of the belief that this is good for society.

The practice of ‘outing’ for a cause is not new. As a part of the queer rights movement, many queer folks believed that publicly outing closeted LGBT individuals would help the movement. I would argue that this practice is quite fraught. Consider the highly publicized case of Oliver Sipple. Sipple was well known in the gay community, but he was not public about his sexuality. In 1975, a woman attempted to assassinate U.S. President Ford; Sipple’s marine training prepared him to recognize the situation for what it was. He lunged at her as she was shooting and she missed. The media immediately portrayed him as a hero. He asked that the media not make reference to his sexuality, but Harvey Milk – a prominent gay activist – chose to out him to the press. He wanted the public to know that gay people could do heroic things too.

The impact on Sipple was devastating. The White House put distance from him; his family rejected him. He sued the newspaper for invasion of privacy. Meanwhile, he fell apart. He drank profusely, gained massive amounts of weight, and became paranoid and suicidal. He was reported to have talked about regretting his act of heroism. He died at the age of 47.

Did the societal benefits of outing Sipple outweigh the personal consequences for him? That’s a hard moral question to ask. Yet, this is the question that we must ask ourselves whenever we think about acts of radical transparency. Many proponents of radical transparency believe that the long-term gains from radical transparency outweigh the short-term pain and suffering.

Yet, with the rise of Anonymous, the onset of technology-mediated global political movements, and the battles over real names, there’s a real tension within geek communities as the values of privacy and radical transparency come head-to-head. Consider this in light of Facebook.

David Kirkpatrick has argued that Facebook’s approach to privacy rests on Zuckerberg’s belief in radical transparency. I would agree with his assessment. In many instances, Zuckerberg has argued that people are more accountable if they don’t hide behind pseudonyms and privacy settings. It’s hard to interpret the shift in privacy settings that took place a few years back as anything other than the outing of Facebook users. This is precisely the argument I made at SXSW two years ago when I was given the opportunity to keynote this conference. As I explained back then, just as with other types of outing, there were serious consequences for individuals who were exposed by Facebook. But the question on the table still remains: is society better off when everyone and everything is publicly out in the open?

The idea is that forcing people into the open will force them to behave civilly, where civility is defined in hegemonic terms. We hear this discussed in terms of trolls, as though anonymity and pseudonymity automatically produce meanness and cruelty. Again, as a scholar of youth culture, I find this so infuriating, particularly because most people who are on the receiving end of hate know exactly who the hater is.

Increasingly, the battles over identity are moving beyond geek culture into political battles. The same technologies that force people into the open are being used to expose people who are engaged in political speech. Consider, for example, how crowdsourcing is being used to identify people in a photograph. It just so happens that these people were engaged in a political protest.

Radical transparency is particularly tricky in light of the attention economy. Not all information is created equal. People are far more likely to pay attention to some kinds of information than others. And, by and large, they’re more likely to pay attention to information that causes emotional reactions. Additionally, people are more likely to pay attention to some people. The person with the boring life is going to get far less attention than the person that seems like a trainwreck. Who gets attention – and who suffers the consequences of attention – is not evenly distributed.

And, unfortunately, oppressed and marginalized populations who are already under the microscope tend to suffer far more from the rise of radical transparency than those who already have privilege. The cost of radical transparency for someone who is gay or black or female is different in Western societies than it is for a straight white male. This is undoubtedly a question of privacy, but we should also look at it through the prism of the culture of fear.

CONFLICTING IDEAS OF PROGRESS

Radical transparency presumes that outing people will combat fear and increase tolerance. But does it? Are marginalized people better off as a group when they are exposed? I genuinely don’t know the answer to this. But my hunch is that things aren’t working out the way folks intend them to.

Many queer activists look to the last 50 years and argue that LGBT acceptance continues to increase alongside the rise of highly visible LGBT-identified people. But historian George Chauncey is quick to highlight that queer culture pre-WWII was much more vibrant and open than what was available in the 1970s, the supposed liberating years for the queer community. In fact, the fears that rose after Prohibition are what drove the oppression of queer society. “To use the modern idiom,” Chauncey writes, “the state built a closet in the 1930s and forced gay people to hide in it.” What happened?

In Germany, the 1920s were an extraordinarily gay time. In all senses of the word. Fear squelched that. I don’t want to get all Godwin’s Law on you here, but it’s important to realize that social forces are not linear. There’s no universal narrative of “progress” where we continue to march forward to ever-increasing levels of enlightenment. Hell, there are radically divergent ideas of what constitutes progress and enlightenment in the first place.

Let me take a moment to put my values on the table here because there’s no way for me to talk about progress without making it clear where I’m coming from. I’m a third wave feminist. I believe in social liberalism. I’m a geek who’s committed to science and the pursuit of knowledge, but who also believes that it’s impossible to completely untether fact from bias, truth from social construct. I respect others’ religious beliefs, but I myself am not religious. All of these positions shape my worldview and shape my views on what constitutes progress and enlightenment.

Tolerance is a value that I am completely committed to. But it is often espoused as though it is neutral. It is not. The fact is that people tolerate certain things and not others – and this tolerance changes on who they’re with, what the issues are, what the risks are of being tolerant. Our decisions about what is acceptable to tolerate stem from our values and our beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. There are certainly people who embrace difference when they’re exposed to it, but there are also people who fear it.

Exposure to new people doesn’t automatically produce tolerance. When explorers traversed the earth looking for opportunity, they pillaged and plundered even before they began colonizing. Fear ruled the seas. And let’s be honest… exposure to other people during great explorations did not magically produce tolerance. It bred anger, distrust, and hatred.

Through networked technologies, the average person is exposed to more things today than ever before in history. You can get a window into the lives of people halfway around the world. You may not understand what they are saying nor may they be sharing that much with you, but the internet gives you more access to more peoples than even the greatest explorers in history ever had. But what do you make of this opportunity? Are you really looking around to understand difference? Or are you more committed to finding similarity and avoiding people who aren’t like you?

The internet makes visible things that we want to see, but it also makes visible things that we don’t want to see. It exposes us to people who are different. And this is the source of a great amount of fear.

Consider the various moral panics that surround young people’s online interactions. The current panic is centered on “cyberbullying.” Every day, I wake up to news reports about the plague of cyberbullying. If you didn’t know the data, you’d be convinced that cyberbullying is spinning out of control. The funny thing is that we have a lot of data on this topic, data dating back for decades. Bullying is not on the rise and it has not risen dramatically with the onset of the internet. When asked about bullying measures, children and teens continue to report that school is the place where the most serious acts of bullying happen, where bullying happens the most frequently, and where they experience the greatest impact. This is not to say that young people aren’t bullied online; they are. But rather, the bulk of the problem actually happens in adult-controlled spaces like schools.

What’s different has to do with visibility. If your son comes home with a black eye, you know something went down. If he comes home grumpy, you might guess. But for the most part, the various encounters that young people have with their peers go unnoticed by adults, even when they have devastating emotional impact. Online, interactions leave traces. Not only do adults bear witness to really horrible fights, but they can also see teasing, taunting, and drama. And, more often then not, they blow the latter out of proportion. I can’t tell you how many calls I get from parents and journalists who are absolutely convinced that there’s an epidemic that must be stopped. Why? The scale of visibility means that fear is magnified.

We’ve seen this before. When my mother was growing up, her parents heard about terrible things from other parents; their fear was driven by word-of-mouth. When I was growing up, my mother heard about terrible things that happened to kids on the television; her fear was driven by mainstream media. In today’s media landscape, fear of terrible things happening to kids is so pervasive that it’s hard to avoid it. No wonder parents think that children today are at more risk than ever before even though, by almost every statistical measure, youth are safer today than at any previous point in history.

This apparent contradiction stems from the messy way in which the culture of fear intersects with the attention economy. Fear spread fast and we haven’t found a good antidote.

Communications scholar George Gerbner noticed that media coverage of violent content makes people believe that the world is more dangerous than it really is. He called this phenomenon the “mean world syndrome.” The more people are exposed to negative content about what’s happening in the world, the more they believe the world to be a negative place. Gerbner was focused on exposure through broadcast media, but what does this mean for networked media? How do the silos that we sit in shape our worldviews?

POWER IN NETWORKS

Many of us live in a wonderful little internet bubble. It was this bubble that got me online in the first place. I wanted to opt out of the mainstream America that I was living in. I didn’t like the religious fear-mongering that surrounded me. I wanted to find other people who thought like me. People who were curious and passionate and determined to create a better world. I found those people in the bowels of Usenet and IRC. It was refreshing and freeing. But I also had no illusions about it. I knew that I entered into a counterpublic.

Many of those who embraced the nascent internet relished its transformative potential. The likes of Stewart Brand and Jaron Lanier used to talk about how the internet would transform society. Remember John Perry Barlow’s “Declarations of the Independence of Cyberspace”?

The internet is now mainstream. There has been no magical enlightenment. Mainstream people are doing mainstream things, good, bad, and ugly. And, yet, rather than recognizing this for what it is, folks are continuing to spew utopian and dystopian rhetoric. Jaron Lanier – an early champion of the internet – is now lamenting how it didn’t live up to his unrealistic expectations. His critique makes sense if you believed that the internet would be the transformative actor that Jaron believed. I never had such high hopes so it’s not surprising to me that the internet mirrors and magnifies broader social and cultural values.

Of course, it’s not just the dystopic rhetoric that’s popping up. We still have plenty of utopic language to go around. Consider the kinds of conversations that happened around the Arab Spring as pundits babbled on and on about the “social media revolutions” in ways that implied that the internet was shipping democracy wholesale to the Middle East. This technology-centric rhetoric regarding the political uprisings came straight out of 1995.

Yes, social media was used in sharing messages among some involved in the uprisings, but those users were never representative of the people. This is why the elections played out differently than those using social media would’ve liked.

Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble” is a useful lens for looking at how algorithms are biasing our perspective, but it doesn’t account for the complex mechanisms of networked power. It’s not just any voice that gets amplified. It’s all about structural position and flows across networks.

Sociologist Manuel Castells argues that we’ve seen a shift in how power operates. Power is no longer cleanly hierarchical. It’s now about power within networks. In a painfully academic way, he argues that there are four different kinds of power in networks: networking power, network power, networked power, and network-making power.

1.The first is about inclusion/exclusion. Whether your invited to the party tonight or not.
2.The second is about structural factors that create inclusion/exclusion. How SXSW sets up the rules for who can attend what
3.The third is about who sets in motion those structural conditions. Who are the people behind SXSW that could create the rules.
4.The fourth is the most important. The fourth is about whoever can make the networks…
And here’s where we see technology destabilizing power. Those who can control the flow of information and those who can control people’s attention are extraordinarily powerful. The only folks more powerful than those who control the networks are those who can make the networks. It’s no longer simply about broadcasting a message; it’s about setting in motion mechanisms to draw attention to you. If you want power in a networked society, you need to orchestrate control over the ecosystem.

Consider this for a moment in light of Kony 2012. Folks are obsessed with how this video went “viral.” I would argue that what happened here was very much orchestrated. Yes, the video is compelling. But there are lots of videos that are compelling. Invisible Children has long built networks of young people and supporters from very disparate worlds. What happened last week is that they were all “turned on” for a moment. And they told their friends. And this made them feel like they were part of a movement. And because they turned on simultaneously from loosely connected parts of the network, the story went global trending very fast. This is network-making power.

In a broadcast environment, propagating fear came through broadcast messages. We’re still living with that kind of fear-mongering. But the more insidious forms of fear-mongering appear to come from the grassroots. That which comes from inside the networks that we are building. This kind of fear-mongering gets narrated as “social norms.” We are building these networks but we’re not thinking about the power that we have in doing this.

People are afraid of people who aren’t like them and, while there are a lot of xenophiles in geek circles, most people aren’t comfortable with difference. In this country alone, we’ve seen a phenomenal rise in fear towards foreigners at the same time that we’ve seen the rise of the internet. Here in Texas, attitudes towards those of Mexican descent are wrapped up in political ideology about immigration. Hatred towards Muslims is pervasive in this country, even as the news coverage of the Arab Spring humanized some Muslims. And we’re seeing political candidates run on platforms of intolerance. This is reality in many communities, even though most of our technologies pretend to ignore it. And then we’re surprised when our tools are used to spread hate and fear.

The technologies we’re building are shaping public life, but public life is also shaping our tools. And some parts of public life aren’t pleasant. It’s easy to imagine that we can just pump out “good” or “neutral” tools, but that’s not the way socio-technical dynamics work. If we actually want our tools to be used to create a public culture that we like, we need to engage with cultural issues, including those that are depressing. We can’t ignore fear or pretend like it’s not an issue. We can’t pretend like the relationships that form on our services are even and that everyone has equal opportunity to participate.

The tools that we build are getting repurposed around the globe by people with all sorts of different agendas. They’re being used by activists to challenge the status quo, but they’re also being used by the status quo to assert new kinds of authority. People are building the new networks of power on the technological networks that we’ve generated and they’re reinforcing existing power structures.

Through social media, we’re ramping up the attention economy. We are setting in motion new networks. We like to think of ourselves as disrupting power systems and, indeed, that’s what we were doing for a long time. But now, those in power are leveraging our tools to exert new forms of power. Fear is one of the tools that’s being used. People are finding ways to put fear into our systems.

Social media is no longer the great disrupter. It is now part of the status quo. Are we prepared for what that means? Are we prepared for the ecosystem that we’ve created? Do we even understand how our systems are being employed by those hellbent on maintaining power in a networked age?

I don’t have good answers to these socio-technical conundrums. But I think that these are important issues and I need your help in figuring out where to go from here.

Thank you.

Culture of Fear:
Comments by Will Richardson

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About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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