The Year of Fear

In October I was at a small, intimate, concert (capacity 150) by a band originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina that I used to listen to and became friendly with over the years. It was a comeback tour show, promoting a comeback record, they used to have a fair following in Europe a decade or so ago, so the room was pretty full, the atmosphere great. At one pause in the set while tuning between songs, one of the members, Al Burian, stepped up to the microphone and said something like this: “Everywhere you look there is fear. Everyone wants us to be afraid. But that fear is not coming from you, it is coming from them, from the outside. It’s not yours. You can just refuse it – it’s not your fear, it’s theirs. You don’t have to let it in.” See Elias Canetti for more on the intricacies of the role of the orator and the influence of the crowd, but at that moment, it seemed that time stopped. There was a pervasive feeling of understanding in the room following his comments: a crowd unified in their recognition of the existence of the commonality of their perception of the irrational pervasiveness of fear.

Looking back on 2016, I think of that moment, those words, in that room, as being one of the defining moments of the year for me. 2015 seemed to me as a year of forgetting, with the overwhelmingly lack of support (to put it mildly) from the local and regional news media toward refugees fleeing war, resulting in negative public opinion and an unwillingness to even remotely understand, much less empathize with, a situation that Europe knows all too well. 2016 wasn’t much better in this regard. But if I had to put a label on it, 2016 seemed to me as the year of fear.

The connection between fear and the media is nothing new. Even before the printing press, and long before mass literacy, the written word could strike fear in the hearts of entire communities – even those that couldn’t actually read. But in recent years – particularly the last two decades – a major interdisciplinary flow of scholarship has been devoted to a ‘culture of fear’, so omnipresent in global (late) modernity. From Altheide to Bauman, Castells to Žižek, many have polemicized about the entirely incompatible and hypocritical relationship between democracy and ‘fear culture’.

It is impossible to discuss the ‘fear complex’ without discussing the role of the global impact of the transformation of the news media from the former public service-oriented role in the context of scarcity (or limited channels), to a highly competitive, commercial model characterized by abundance, market concentration, and synergetic targeting initiatives at the expense of accountability. Survival for the news media today, means, in laypersons terms, getting those clicks. Or, presenting information in such a way that the public is compelled to choose your product over another. The same way that survival in politics means presenting arguments in such a way that the public is compelled to listen to them. The two are related: A ‘wall’ to protect us from ‘rapists’ is more likely to draw attention from the public – and therefore the media – than a ‘reasonableness’ that will allow us to be ‘stronger together.’ If the survival of my organization depends upon the attention of the public, it is only logical that I am going to offer them content which attracts their attention, and leads them to me. Very often, that attention-getter is fear. The difference today from a few decades ago is that then the news media then could afford to ignore it. Today, it is suicide. If you don’t report it, your competitor will, and you will lose your audience, and consequently your business.

When unexpected or bad things happen in our societies, we typically turn to the news media to tell us why. They attempt to explain things for us, often citing experts, so we can make sense of situations. Interestingly, in many cases, the news media have a tendency to point the finger of blame for tragedy on other (non-news) media, which is understandable in some ways, because they are so influential in our hyper-mediatized societies. The news media themselves are never the source of the problem - after all, they are just reporting the facts, thus for obvious reasons their record for reflection and objective self-analysis is not very good. So when a mass shooting takes place, we hear it is due to violent video games. A church set on fire is obviously due to a metal band’s evil music. When an unqualified person is elected to the highest office of a major democracy? Well that is the result of amateur, unqualified tricksters that have overwhelmed millions with untruthful stories, combined with an unprecedented trend of politicians tricking the public by not telling the truth - both things that of course have never happened before in the history of the world.

Yes, fake news and post-truth politics, the buzzwords of 2016, so novel and unheard of that they have become the words of the year according to… leading dictionaries! (remember them?), triumphantly and resolutely announced to us by seemingly philanthropic and saintly public defenders such as The Washington Post, Alphabet/Google, News Corporation, CNN and Time Warner, ABC and Disney, and other major elite media companies, who obviously had absolutely nothing to do with pandering to sensationalism and spreading fear among populations themselves in their rush for ‘clicks’. Free citizens, as we are being told, are following obscure and primitive news blogs emanating from dodgy places such as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, becoming indoctrinated, and making bad decisions – a logic sounding remarkably similar to the that of yesteryear and the supposed tens of millions of Americans indoctrinated by Radio Moscow during the Cold War and transformed into stark raving communists – even though Radio Moscow could only be accessed by a couple of thousand people in Florida, who were incidentally far too happy listening to Bon Jovi to tune in. Now we are faced with hordes of… indoctrinated fake news addicts. Scary stuff!

This new fear of the ‘fake’ in the post-2016 US election seems, if anything, like a novel theme for public debate, but it is not without parallels. Naomi Klein in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, argued that after crises, corporations and governments often quickly move to take advantage of crises to push through controversial policies that the ‘shocked’ society is to distracted to comprehend. The pervasive view that ‘fake news’ resulted in the ‘shocking’ result of the US election, has allowed major media corporations – with the enthusiastic support of governments from the US to China and many points in between - to move very rapidly toward the stifling and censorship of independent media, without the slightest hint of public outcry. By forming alliances such as First Draft, and making grand, theatrical gestures of publicly shaming platforms such as Facebook for allowing ‘non-professional’ journalists to create news, complete with great fanfare from the mainstream media and intellectuals, we are now facing an unprecedented campaign that threatens to suppress the public’s only hope against the culture of fear as brought to us by the major news media: independent, non-commercial news organizations. This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of rubbish out there, there are loads of unhappy, confused people eager to spread hate, and there always has been. Should we be upset by easy access to far-right hate speech? Of course. But the fact is that audiences are a lot more active and critical than we give them credit for. By accepting the view that only wealthy, powerful, media organizations with ranked brand names can decide for the public what is good enough for them to consume goes against a good 70 years of media effects research which has continuously shown that people are, on the whole, pretty smart, and more often than not able to discriminate and recognize when they are being duped.

The problem, as usual, is entirely somewhere else. But it is inconvenient, since it involves pointing the finger at oneself, which as we said earlier, the news media are not very good at. Looking at statistics from the best public opinion research organizations, either for profit (e.g. Gallup), or non-profit (e.g. Pew), clearly shows that the public’s trust in mainstream news organizations has not only been in constant decline in the last 25 years, but is now at its lowest point in history. In short, the public is unhappy with the culture of fear as instigated by commercial, mainstream news media organizations, and can, on a large scale for the first time in history, turn away if they choose. The refusal of the news media to recognize their faults – largely because they can’t in the competitive media environment that exists -means that the only thing they can do is outlaw and discredit other organizations in order to keep the public dependent upon their sensational, fear-mongering ‘news’, and the subsequent profits that rapt attention ensures.

So what then of 2016, the year of fear? A simple way to frame it in the context here might be that fear begets fear. A pretty crummy place to be after all this work on building rational civilization, and having the possibilities that new technologies and cultures of sharing have given us. It doesn’t bode well for the future either, since collective fear is often closely followed by collective anger. But if it starts to get you down, remember Al Burian, and his little message to a small crowd on a rainy Sunday night in Prague: Don’t let the fear in. It is their fear, not ours.

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