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.

Project details

August 2014 – April 2018
ESRC (ES/M003574/1 and ES/M003574/2)
Funded value:
  • Vanessa Pupavac, University of Nottingham (Co-Investigator)
  • Karen Salt, University of Nottingham (Co-Investigator)
  • Julie Barnett, University of Bath (Co-Investigator)

NORTH Lab investigators

Shaun Lawson

Shaun joined Northumbria University in November 2015 after leaving the University of Lincoln where he led the Lincoln Social Computing (LiSC) Research Centre for a number of years.
After doing a postdoc at the University of Surrey, he took up his first academic post at in the School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University in 2000. In 2005 he moved to Lincoln first as a Senior Lecturer, then Reader and he was appointed the Uk’s first Professor in social computing in 2011. His research primarily explores the use and significance of social media, and other digital services, in people’s lives and he has conducted applied work in areas such as health and wellbeing, politics and activism, and sustainability. His current focus is on the convergence of broadcast and social media in political and societal context and on how technology is used is support mental health, wellbeing and social support and cohesion. He has held grants totalling over £2million in the past 5 years from funders such as EPSRC, ESRC, the EU and Microsoft Research and is the author, or co-author, of over 100 peer-reviewed publications. He was Chair of British HCI 2015 and is the founding chair of the UK’s SIGCHI chapter.

John Vines

I’m a designer by background, and most of my current research is located in the fields of human-computer interaction (HCI) and participatory design.

My research focuses on the study of how people experience, appropriate and use digital technologies in their everyday lives. I often take a research through design approach, which for me involves designing new digital prototypes, artefacts and “things” with citizens, and studying the creation and use of these prototypes to generate knowledge that is both valuable to designers and advances our understanding of social phenomena. I am specifically interested in how technology is interwoven with issues such as independence and agency in later life, could support informal and relational care for people of all ages, and might help scaffold “friendly” and “caring” communities. I also have experience and ongoing interests in human experience and technology design as it relates to self-care, trust, security and empathic communication. Generally, I’m intrigued by the ways in which digital technologies might support new interactions and engagements between people in relation to these issues, rather than be used to replace human contact (as is often the case).

Along with the above, a large amount of my research examines the practical and ethical dimensions of conducting participatory design (and participatory research in general) with citizens, especially in sensitive contexts and with people with heightened vulnerabilities. Therefore I have an ongoing interest in understanding the methods and techniques used for involving people in design and research processes, and have been involved in a series of professional events and journal special issues unpicking the ethical encounters faced when conducting participatory and technology oriented research with participants.

Tom Feltwell

Tom joined Northumbria University in February 2016, as a research assistant on the CuRAtOR: Challenging online feaR And OtheRing project, which aims to explore how new interactive digital experiences might be designed to counteract the problematic outcomes of Othering and fearful representations.
Having completed an undergraduate degree in Games Computing at University of Lincoln, Tom started working as a research assistant on the CuRAtOR project at the University of Lincoln in 2014. He moved to Northumbria University in February 2016 to join Professor Shaun Lawson in the newly formed Northumbria Social Computing Lab (NorSC Lab). He is currently finalising a MSc by Research at University of Lincoln on the subject of user-centred design of game analytics visualisations.
His research focuses on the societal and cultural impact of digital and social media technologies, visualisations and mapping of data, and the appropriation and usage of technology for political and activist purposes.

Gavin Wood

Prior to research I worked in the computer games industry for 12 years where I held positions ranging from games designer, graphics programmer and physics programmer before finalising my role as the technical lead of a small games studio. This experience included AA titles developed for PS3, Xbox and Wii and included feature films and world sporting events. I left the games industry but continue to blog and release indie games for iOS and Windows PC under the name BaaWolf. Games like Thatgamecompany’s Flower, and Osmos from Hemisphere Games continue to inspire my interest in this field. I entered into research three years ago and began to apply gaming technology and experience to creating digital prototypes. Magic Land: The Design and Evaluation of an Interactive Tabletop Supporting Therapeutic Play with Children used my own game engine and toolset to deliver a robust and polished digital prototype allowing research to concentrate on the important elements like producing new opportunities for play. I am continuing to develop innovative gaming technologies as my research agenda begins to focus on the experience of play in digital technologies.

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