Cultures of fear can be spread, either deliberately or otherwise, by a wide range of agents including the media, government, science, the arts, industry and politics. The ease of which fear can be generated means that today’s society remains inordinately fearful of improbable harms and dangers. A good deal of societal fear stems from mistrust of ‘the Other’: a term used to describe individuals or groups that are, quite simply, ‘not like us’. In this project, we explicitly explore this notion of ‘Othering’ as it occurs in situations where ‘the Other’ are seen as “anomalous,” “peculiar,” or “deviant” and hence negatively perceived, stigmatised, excluded, marginalised and discriminated against. Recent high-profile examples of practices of Othering in the UK include the exclamation that “tens of thousands of eastern Europeans” would enter the UK when immigration restrictions were lifted at the beginning of 2014 resulting in, for instance, a “crime wave”, and the “poverty-porn” portrayal on broadcast television of seemingly whole communities of “benefit claimants living off of taxpayers’ earnings”. Such practices can lead to a lack of tolerance, respect and inclusion, as well as actual fear, mistrust and marginalisation of whole communities; these effects have severe and well-known implications for local communities as well as for national social cohesion.
There are significant unanswered questions regarding how acts of Othering translates into effects on real populations and in real contexts, and what role online digital media can have in propagating cultures of fear and mistrust. With online social media, no longer is fear delivered exclusively in a top down manner, (e.g. from government and the mainstream media). Instead it is now also delivered from the grassroots level and therefore insidiously present in the user-generated social data streams that we absorb from our encounters with the web, and, in particular, with platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Recent observations of social media discussions of the Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street have, for instance, highlighted the high levels of antipathy, anger and abuse directed at the community portrayed within the programme. Fear may also be unwittingly, yet pervasively, propagated by the plethora of emerging digital apps, data and services that promise to improve our lives; for instance, the release of open crime data is meant to increase confidence in our law enforcement agencies, yet its actual effect is to increase fear of crime and, yet again, stigmatise communities.
The focus of this project are the cultures of fear that are propagated through online Othering and how this leads to subsequent mistrust of groups or communities. Our research will generate an understanding of how the deliberate design of online media services and platforms can influence and oppose cultures of fear and result in cultures of empathy that can actively, and strategically, reduce or eliminate mistrust and negative consequences of Othering. We will actively collaborate with stakeholders to co-design new digital services that facilitate wide-scale empathy with specifically chosen often-Othered groups. This will include active collaboration with broadcast media organisations to develop a range of interactive, digital online experiences delivered alongside traditional media. We will also undertake online ethnographies and data collection, where prior or existing activities have portrayed a group in ways that actively provoke Othering as evidenced through discourse on social and traditional media; in this instance we will design and deliver a set of digital services to counter this in a deliberate manner.