Fear and Fear-Mongering

Fear-mongering is used a lot these days. Learn how fear affects our bodies and brains, how detect fear-mongering, and how to handle it. 

Who among us hasn’t over-reacted at least once in their life out of a fear that someone would hurt us or take something away from us?  Some politicians throughout our history have used such fears to motivate people to support them and their policies. Crime is a favorite. Other popular scary topics include people who don’t look like us, or don’t share our culture, language, or religion – all coming to take our jobs or our women and children. Economic crises like recessions or hyper-inflation can be pretty scary too, as can natural disasters. Invoking any of these fears to manipulate people is often referred to as fear-mongering.

In this short learning module, we review the consequences of fear, the hallmarks of fear-mongering, and some techniques you can use to manage fear.  These skills are important because, as we explain below, it hard to fight for something precious, like liberal and republican elements of our government (see America: Republic or Democracy?), when our minds are fogged with fear.

1. Fear has Consequences

Fear affects our ability to think and act.   We can miss important information:  our vision can narrow, we can become color blind, our depth perception may weaken.  Our sense of time gets distorted.  In such circumstances, it is no surprise that scared people start seeing threats where there are none.  When the threat is real, scared people miss crucial details that would help them win.  Some people run away, even when others need help. Some people freeze up, like a deer caught in the headlights of a car.

Fabrice Florin
  • There were many false alarms following the terrorist attack of 9/11/2001.  People reported all sorts of bomb threats that were purely imagined, at great expense to the affected jurisdictions.  In one example, a man thought the confetti in his birthday card anthrax.  Many people stopped traveling, and many businesses spent millions of dollars irradiating their mail to protect against the possibility of anthrax.

Persistent fear can also affect our health.  Constant fear weakens our immune systems and can cause heart problems, stomach problems, and decreased fertility.  Other effects include tiredness, depression, faster aging, and even early death.  Doctors found that people who were most fearful of another attack after 9/11/2001 were also much more likely to suffer from new heart problems.

Many people are willing to sacrifice their rights, or the rights of others, when they are scared.  Here are a few famous historical examples of how fear motivated people in the wrong direction:

  • The “Red Scare” of 1919-20.  After World War One, American workers were eager for wage increases following their sacrifices in the inflationary war years.  A series of massive strikes created fear that American workers would follow the recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia – as tried in parts of Europe. Many people were spied on and/or blacklisted from employment.  Picketing was outlawed, thus denying workers their freedom of speech and assembly.  Laws protecting against child labor and establishing a minimum wage for women were also struck down. A second red scare took place in the 1940s and 1950s, ending with the McCarthy Trials in 1954.
  • Fear of Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor led to the mass incarceration of 110-120 thousand Japanese living in the US from 1942 through 1946.  Sixty-two percent of them were US citizens.   In 1988, President Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
  • Decades of fear of terrorist attacks has motivated people in many countries, including the USA, to submit to warrantless baggage searches, pat-downs, and body-imaging scans.  Many Americans believe these should be considered illegal under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, protecting against unreasonable search and seizure.  The only way this kind of monitoring can be justified as “reasonable” is to presume everyone is potentially a terrorist.  Additional measures include the placement of video monitors in tens of thousands of locations, license place readers, monitoring of social media, and other means of tracking personal location and behavior.  Thus far, there has not been widespread abuse of these new powers, but there is enormous opportunity waiting for anyone determined to do so.

2. Be Alert to Fear-Mongering

To detect fear-mongering, here are some things you can be alert for:

  • Speaking for others.  It is a dead give-away that you are being manipulated towards fear (or anger) whenever you hear someone telling you “They say …[something you won’t like]” or “They will … [do something you don’t like].” Note: you can find a LOT of speaking for others in these three places: political campaigns, cable “news” (CNN, MSNBC, Fox, OAN, etc), and social media.
  • Manufactured vulnerability.  An example is “They are out there, waiting, and will attack when we least expect it.”  The vulnerability is manufactured by not providing specific information about who they are, why they want to attack, where they are, when they will attack, or how.
  • Us versus them.  The basic formula is messages that say “They want to [do something bad] to us.”  Or “They aren’t like us, and won’t respect our ways.” “They are coming for us” or “They are coming for our jobs” and so on.
  • Over-generalizing.  The fact that a criminal gang in one neighborhood in one city killed a man is upsetting, but it does not mean that there are criminal gangs in every neighborhood who will kill everyone living in them.
  • Wrongful attribution.  You may have heard that someone from group A attacked one of your own, obviously over ethnic/religious/political differences, so there is no way you could ever trust anyone from group A.  You could be very wrong.  It might be that the confrontation was actually a drunken argument about football.  It might even be that the attacker wasn’t from group A at all.
  • Drama. Here are a few examples.  “I was viciously attacked.”  “They seek nothing less than the total destruction of our way of life.”  “Death of our republic.”  “Economic nightmare.” “Ruthless.”
  • Exaggeration. Watch for words like “always,” “never,” “endless,” “relentless,” “overwhelming,” and so on.
  • Music and imagery.  Pay attention to what kinds of music and images are in the background.  For example, does the music become low and ominous when Congressman Bob says, “They are coming for us” and lighten up when he says “I can stop them?”  Similar things are done with pictures and videos.

The media – mainstream and otherwise – are often part of the problem.  News outlets that rely on viewers to see advertisements are more likely to sensationalize fearful events to get your attention.  Subscription news outlets may be less tempted.

3. See Things as They Really Are

Other times, fears are overblown or imagined.  In those times, it is equally important to see things clearly, as they are, if you want to hold on to your rights and liberty.  Here are some tips that can help:

  • Don’t instinctively follow the crowd.  It’s human nature to take warning from the people around us.  You might normally trust the people around you but, if they are not taking time to assess clearly, then they may already be panicked.  That won’t help you.
  • Seek a wide variety of opinions and assessments.  People who don’t think like you can be valuable if only because they may see some things you missed.
  • Look for facts you can verify.  Strip away all the descriptive adjectives and adverbs.  Look for details about who, what, when, where, how, and why.  If you can’t find much, then keep digging or consider the possibility that your fear may not require a response. 
  • Look for other explanations.  Your fear might be justified, but it could also be a misunderstanding.  Again, the who, what, when, where, how, and why can be useful in sorting out competing explanations.
  • Keep things in perspective.  For example, a lightning strike is violent and scary, and there are hundreds of thousands every year. They can strike anywhere.   Yet, very few people are harmed by them.  The chances of dying from a lightning strike in the USA are more than 10 million to 1. 
  • Are you being manipulated?  Keep in mind people often do scary things to intimidate their voters, victims, or opponents — but what are they after, really?

4. Don’t Spread the Fear

Do the people around you a favor. Do not share or pass on other people’s fear-mongering.  It might make for juicy gossip, but it is dangerous and harmful. 

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© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy
September 2019

This material is meant to be used only for civic education.
It may be copied and distributed only for non-profit, non-partisan, educational purposes and only with proper credit to the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Written by Douglas Addison for the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

CFFAD is a non-profit organization providing non-partisan civic education.

More reading:

Freedom House, 2016.  The Civil Liberties Implications Of Counter-terrorism Policies, chapter in Today’s American: How Free? 

Brad Schmidt and Jeffrey Winters, January 2002, Anxiety after 9-11, Psychology Today.

Holman, Silver, Poulin, Andersen, Gil-Rivas, and McIntosh, 2008. Terrorism, Acute Stress, and Cardiovascular Health: A 3-Year National Study Following the September 11th Attacks. Archives of General Psychiatry65(1), pp.73-80.

Nicolas Kristof, September 4, 2010, America’s History of Fear.

David Rothkpf, March 2015: How Fear Drives American Politics, TED Talk.
https://www.ted.com/talks/david_rothkopf_how_fear_drives _american_politics/transcript?language=en

Global Research, March 16, 2016, The Terrorism Statistics Every American Needs to Hear.

Economist Magazine, February 2013: Danger of death!

Photo credits:

Fear: Unknown

Deer in Headlights:  Fabrice Florin, CC 2.0.