Free Markets, Free People

“Fearmongering” has become a competitive enterprise

A year or so ago I wrote an post asking “Are we needlessly scaring ourselves to death”?  My feeling was that we do indeed needlessly scare ourselves to death by not putting threats into perspective.  Used in the post were statistics about terrorist attacks via airlines and the likelihood of actually being a victim of terrorism in such a situation.  As you might imagine, given the number of passengers, flights and miles traveled, the risk per se is statistically miniscule.  But that doesn’t keep the population at large from being “scared” of the threat or condoning limits on liberty to hopefully prevent even that tiny percent of successful attacks.

That brings me to a larger point.  The evolution of  “scaremongering”.  Frank Furedi hits on the issue I’ve observed over the years since technology and the internet have given communication a rocket boost that we apparently haven’t quite adapted too.  Scaremongering has become a competitive growth industry:

[T]he massive growth of fearmongering campaigns and crusades over the past quarter of a century has been unprecedented. Fear-fuelled grandstanding becomes most extravagant in relation to the very big catastrophic hazards that apparently threaten the survival of the planet itself. The list of potential planetary disasters is growing all the time. International terrorism, climate change, influenza-type pandemic, the AIDS epidemic, overpopulation, obesity, disastrous technological accidents – these are only some of the many mega-hazards that are said to confront humanity today.

Scaremongering also has a powerful impact in the arena of individual health. Health scares targeting women and children in particular have become a flourishing enterprise in recent years. Health scares are often linked to anxieties about food or the alleged side effects of drugs, pollution and new technologies. Personal security is another important area for fearmongering. Anxieties about crime, immigration and anti-social behaviour are regularly promoted by law-and-order groups. The environment, of course, is now treated as a potentially huge problem in it own right. Anything that has an impact on nature is said to store up big disasters for the future.

With so much to fear, it’s not surprising that there is now an intense level of competition to grab the attention of the public. Scaremongering has become a highly competitive enterprise; contemporary public debate often takes the form of countering one hysterical plea with another.

He’s right.  And the result is a confused public and a debate that spirals out of control with little of substance being offered in the way of constructive dialog and argument.  It is instead replaced by competing attempts to scare the public to one side or the other.  We see it everyday in the so-called political debate.  In many cases as debate about any issue is reduced to scaremongering.  And while many of us may understand that, there are even more that don’t. 

Complex issues are reduced to tag lines and sound bites.  “Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan will kill old people”.  Bumper-sticker scaremongering which opponents to such a plan consider successful if it goes viral and becomes the conventional wisdom.  And those who throw things out like that know, for the most part, that the average American isn’t going to take the time or make the effort to research the plan and attempt to understand it.  He who gets the first meme to go viral out there wins, even if it is blatant nonsense.

And the Democrats or left aren’t the only side which does that (although I’m of the opinion that it is something the left does more than the right based on my observations).   Looking at many of the social con arguments on the right examples can be found that point to the fact that they’re not at all averse to a little scaremongering to advance their agendas.

The result, however, is ironic.  In an era in which unprecedented information on just about any subject or issue are available to just about everyone, we find narratives and memes created by scaremongering to still be accepted at face value by majorities of people.   And that sort of success – scaremongering – breeds imitation.  If it works for side A, side B certainly isn’t going to eschew it.

Consequently, as Furedi points out, scaremongering has become highly a competitive enterprise of claim and counter-claim.

The problem, of course, is the fact that there are things we should be very concerned about, but we have difficulty breaking them out of the clutter of issues being fearmongered.   We also have a tendency to dismiss legitimate claims out of hand, if they sound like fearmongering, because so many of the hyped up issues turn out to be so much nonsense.

Information and perspective are two very important tools in the war against scaremongering.  In my estimation, the battle against the scaremongering alarmists of AGW is a case study in how such scaremongering should be countered.

But there are so many things these days, as Furedi points out, that are being given that treatment that it is not only exasperating but somewhat depressing.   We can’t make rational decision based in irrational and over-hyped issues, but we do it all the time.   Look at what Germany just did with its nuclear power based on the experience of a island nation hit by a tsunami.  That’s likely to happen there, right?  Pure fear expertly exploited.

Fearmongering is something which has to be guarded against and fought.  One of the best ways to do so is obviously through offering facts and perspective instead of a counter claim based in fear.  Unfortunately, for the most part, it seems the sides prefer fear to facts, and that does us all a huge disservice and can be potentially – and I say this advisedly so as not to be branded a “fearmonger” – catastrophic if the wrong policies are implemented as a result.


Twitter: @McQandO


15 Responses to “Fearmongering” has become a competitive enterprise

  • If it bleeds, it leads.
    Never forget, the business of the news business is to sell an audience to advertisers.

  • ‘Is there a pedophile in your neighborhood?  News 7 gets to the heart of the story tonight at 10:00″
    “Hazardous chemicals on your lawn, and how it affects your children, tonite on Channel 8 at 10:00”

  • As to the political angle, consdier; what are the Democrats and the estanlishment Republicans to run on? Their record?
    The Democrats: We gave you $4 gas, a government healthcare system nobody wants and we doubled the debt.
    The Establishment GOP: What they said, only slower.
    Scare tactics are all that’s left to run on for them.

  • Don’t overlook political “hope-mongering” or “joy-mongering”.

    For example, the “fact” that Chrysler paid off all of its TARP loans is touted as a major, joyful success … and proof that the government rescue hope (hype?) was justified.
    Of course, Chrysler DID pay off the TARP loan … with other government loans!! And, the taxpayer is still on the hook for billions of dollars “invested” in Chrysler stock.

    But, as you say, the “meme” has been planted, promoted, and continues unchallenged as a guiding pretext for even more government intervention in private enterprises. It’s just an emotional con-game.

  • In a logical society fearmongering eventually diminishes fearmonger.  The problem is that we are becoming less logical.  Take the decision to subsidize the irrigation of the San Fernando Valley.

    California residential water users pay a higher rate than do citrius growers so consumers can buy cheap oranges and grapefruit, farmers can make a profit and migrant workers can have jobs.  In Brazil growers get enough rain, but the subsidy makes it appear that local fruit is less expensive when it is not.  We need facts in order to apply logic.

    Several years ago, Fred Barnes interviewed Thomas Sowell about these seemingly plausible myths used to persuade us to accept someone’s plan.  Sowell asks the salesman three questions:

    1.  Compared to what?
    2.  What evidence do you have?
    3.  At what cost?

    Anthropogenic global warming advocates are the worst.  They present their hypothesis without explaining the process, providing factual support,  performing a cost analysis or subjecting their ideas to a test.  Believing Al Gore would not only require a willful suspension of disbelief, we would also need to discard the physical chemistry of CO2, repeal the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and throw Archimedies under the bus.  I guess that makes me a skeptic, right Erb?

  • This reminds me of the moment during the most recent CPSIA hearings, when this one well-meaning lady from a “consumer” organization started testifying about how horrible lead poisoning is and how affected the victims are, and one of the Congresspeople asked her a very telling question: name one victim.  Turns out the lady hasn’t met with any actual victims of lead poisoning, she’s just heard about them third-hand and is assured that lead is a potent neurotoxin that evil toy manufacturers are putting into our children on purpose, prevented only by CPSIA.  I wish I could find the video clip of that, but I couldn’t find anything but the entire hearing, and it was several hours.

  • You mean like Liberals telling us we should fear weather?