abstract image of a screaming face

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Fear, cyberspace and public policy – or, why I’m afraid of toothpaste

1st December 2017

Fear is a great motivator for activity, but is a poor and at time dangerous tool for policy. In this blog I’ll be looking at the way in which cyberspace and fear can – together – be a dangerous challenge. The basic point is that fear gets us moving, but might get us moving in the wrong direction. Cyberspace makes this even worse as we don’t know who’s getting us to move. And coupling these things together create a great capacity to create chaos. And chaos is generally not a good thing for governments, let alone the machinery of government. It is this negative impact on government and society more generally that leads me to be afraid of toothpaste (to be explained).

Fear gets me moving

The first point is that fear is a good motivator. The fear of a deadline, the fear of embarrassing myself, the fear of letting people down have been great things to motivate me to prepare this blog. This is not simply the case for getting me to get moving, but for groups, communities, societies and nations. Adam Curtis’ documentary, The Power Of Nightmares, for example, closely explores how fear has played a major role in politics around the world in the past decades. Rather than using dreams and positive myths, Curtis argues that politicians and extremists alike, have been adept at using fear to propel their causes, to push their ideologies. Like getting me writing, fear gets us moving.

Types of fear

In his paper, Terrorism and the Uses of Terror, Jeremy Waldron states that “Flight, in panic, is no doubt directed away from the state of danger, but it may not be directed to a place of safety”. That is, fear can be great to get us moving, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we move in the right direction.

Waldron spells this out by making a distinction between a ‘familiar fear’ and a ‘freaked out fear’. When in a situation of familiar fear, such as being mugged in the street, Waldron suggests that “when a threat is made, the coercer gives his victim a choice and asks him to make a decision. The victim can ponder the advantages and disadvantages of defying the threat (“Is life worth living anyway?”), add up the costs and benefits (“How much is my life insurance worth to my family, compared with what is in my wallet?”), and engage the ordinary apparatus of rational choice”. This familiar fear, is a fear that still allows rational decision making. Like me using fear to get me motived to write a paper, it is something I am familiar with, and it doesn’t stop me from being productive.

Waldron then contrasts this with a situation where a person is covered in petrol, and the coercer is holding a lighter, threatening to set the victim alight. The victim “with this threat present to him, is not in a psychological state to think clearly about the issue at all. The gasoline and the lighter held in front of him is a breaking point, so far as the normal activity of his deliberative faculties is concerned. The self-possession, the patience, the care, and the self-control that are essential to rational choice might desert him in these circumstances, leaving him in a state of panic.”

The trick here is that we may have no capacity to know if a person will be in a state of rational or terrified fear. And if they’re terrified, they may not run in the right direction. To repeat Waldron’s point: “flight, in panic, is no doubt directed away from the state of danger, but it may not be directed to a place of safety.” When we’re freaked out we don’t make good decisions. Paralysis is another response - we get so freaked out we can’t move, can’t get anything done. The point here is that fear can be a good motivator for action, but not always. Other times it can freak us out, get us running in the wrong direction, or paralyse us.

The fifth V

So far, this is nothing new. Cyberspace complicates things where fear is concerned because we not only do not know if a person will run in the right direction or not, we may not know who the person telling them to run is. When seeking to explain how cyberspace presents novel challenges, a number of people talk about the 5 Vs: Volume, Velocity, Value, Variety and Veracity.

It is the fifth V – veracity - that interests me here. When encountering new information online, unless I have the time, motivation and indeed the capacity, I have no easy way of knowing if the information is true. It takes effort and skill to verify the information. And if the information causes fear, I may be compelled to move, and this could be a major mistake. Moreover, because I cannot verify the accuracy of the information, I do not easily know who is getting me to run. They may have a set of motivations that are beneficent, malicious or simply mischievous. And I have no simple or quick way of knowing.

From cyberspace to a fear of toothpaste

Cyberspace creates a toothpaste problem. Consider that I’m now running away from something to who knows where, motivated by who knows what? I may need something to stop me, to comfort me, to slow me down, to point me in a better direction. But given that veracity is such a problem, I may have no reason to trust the truth. Fake News doesn’t just present lies as truth, it causes as many problems by making truth indistinguishable. Fear, once it’s out, is hard to contain. It’s like getting toothpaste back into a tube. The horse has bolted, and to who knows where.

This sort of unsubstantiated, undirected fear was exhibited in the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy of 2016. In this, a series of people online started and perpetuated the idea that high ranking US Democrats were involved in a child sex ring, which operated in the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC called ‘Comet Ping Pong’. One believer of this conspiracy theory took it upon himself to ‘self-investigate’ the story, leading him to arrive at Comet Ping Pong armed and fire three shots before being apprehended by police. In reality, not only was there no child sex ring, but the restaurant didn’t even have a basement; the information was completely false. The point here is that the fear caused by the online conspiracy theory seemed to have a major role in his actions.

This may be an extreme example, but there are other manifestations all around us of ‘toothpaste’ in action - we only need to think the persistent of fears about vaccines to see how unguided, unsubstantiated fears can cause major social disruption. Again, once fear is out there it can be very hard to put it back.

Governance and fear

For governing, this presents a major complex set of challenges. How do we create resilient communities, who are less susceptible to fear, who – if scared – run in the right direction, or at least, do not run in the wrong direction? What counts as the right direction? And how can we protect, restore and repair trust in institutions like the media and political parties, when they themselves are often the mongers of fear?

Dr Adam Henschke is a lecturer at the National Security College, ANU and Research Fellow at the Delft University of Technology, Netherlands.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet