Fear in Politics: Fear in the Information Environment

Fear is perhaps the most powerful of all incentives which come to bear upon individuals and society alike. Although the locus of our fears shifts from century to century, fear itself remains a constant in the lives of human beings across millennia. In the 21st century, we have come to understand quantitatively what philosophers of old understood principally: that our fears govern our words and actions in ways which are not entirely apparent at first glance. This new quantitative understanding of fear and its influence on our convictions reveals certain truths about our epoch: that our ideological or partisan principals are not perhaps as powerful an influence on our convictions as are externalities which arise, nor the information environment in which we live.

It is an invaluable tool in our time: it is a lens through which the influence of fear can be better comprehended in many of the contemporary policies that shape the cultural landscape of the West, and, just as prominently, allows a better on grasp what role Russian meddling and the media landscape truly played in the 2016 election – did you vote for the best candidate? Or the candidate you were least afraid of screwing up a country?

The Data

There can be no doubt that in the hearts and minds of the Western World, the locus of fear in the 21st century is terrorism. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center on the fateful morning of September 11th, the specter of terrorism has haunted the day to day actions of Americans. Our fear of terrorism in this nation is not unique: In October of 2002, 170 were killed in a Moscow theater; in March of 2004, 192 were killed in Madrid; and on July 7th, 2005, the United Kingdom was made victim to devastating bombings on their underground transit systems.

In addition to the existential fears that terrorism instilled in hearts and minds, the specter of terrorism in the first years of the 21st century produced dramatic policy reactions from governments across the globe. Each of the victimized nations above adopted anti-terror legislation to enhance the physical security of their peoples in the wake of the attacks, ranging from increased security measures at airports and public transit hubs, to the creation of new criminal offenses related to terrorism in England. The same can be said of the United States.

Although a list of responses to the 9/11 attacks would consume too much space in this article, even those with the shortest of memories can recall the infamous Patriot Acts which granted the US government with ability to wiretap phones without warrants. What is of particular salience is not the historical timeline of events but rather the relationship between the perception of threat caused by fear of terrorism, and the public policy outcome of that fear influencing individuals in both the electorate and government. In the wake of these policies being adopted, many studies were conducted which sought to better understand the relationship between the level of fear amongst the population, and public policy outcomes in government.

One such study published in 2011 sought to determine quantitatively the connection between perception of threat and public policy outcomes. Mark J. Hetherington & Elizabeth Suhay helped elucidate this relationship between perception of threat and support for the War on Terror in, “Authoritarianism, Threat, and American’s Support for the War on Terror” published in the American Journal of Political Science. Their results proved crucial to understanding which components of the population are most susceptible to the influence of fear on their political convictions, and thus, the relationship between fear and public policy outcomes.

They examined the aggregated results of CCES, OLS, and ANES survey data, concluding that there was a strong correlation between the degree of authoritarianism in parenting, and support for anti-terror policies under normal conditions. In layman’s terms, this means that two strata of individual were observed with two different initial convictions on the necessity or efficacy of anti-terror legislation: (1) individuals who identified as more authoritarian were often highly supportive of anti-terror legislation under normal conditions, while (2) individuals who identified as less authoritarian were less supportive of anti-terror legislation under normal conditions.

What do these differences in authoritarian disposition mean in a practical sense? More authoritarian individuals would likely be colloquially known as “hawkish”, and thus supportive of preemptive strikes, preventative wars, and other unilateral forms of conflict intervention or resolution. By comparison, less authoritarian individuals would likely be known colloquially as “dovish”, and thus supportive of multilateral solutions, utilizing military resolutions to conflict as a last resort. Although these are rough inferences concluded by Hetherington and Suhay, a broad body of research exists outside of this study on the influence of authoritarianism in politics.

Surprisingly, the conclusions of Hetherington and Suhay’s analysis demonstrated that, in fact, the impact of perceived threat was felt most strongly amongst individuals who identified as less authoritarian. Where individuals who were highly authoritarian supported policies such as warrantless wiretapping (USA Patriot Act), installation of CCTV’s, and the limited use of torture against convicted terrorists under normal conditions, individuals who were less authoritarian under normal conditions and did not support such policies were increasingly likely to support such policies as their level of perceived threat increased. In simpler terms, the effects of fear were most concentrated amongst those who were less authoritarian.

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The results of their analysis can be viewed in Table 1, as well as Figures 1a and 1b. Table 1 illustrates the support for policies under normal conditions, while Figures 1a and 1bdemonstrate the shifting support amongst low authoritarian scoring individuals when under the duress of fear. By isolating a single variable – support for media censorship – they were able to determine that the influence of perceived threat was most significant amongst individuals who were less authoritarian. Although they observed a positive relationship between perceived threat and support for media censorship amongst all individuals, the positive relationship was much stronger amongst less authoritarian individuals than amongst highly authoritarian individuals.

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What conclusions did Hetherington and Suhay draw from their analysis? Individuals who are less authoritarian and perceive lower degrees of threat are less likely to support wiretapping or media censorship, where individuals who are less authoritarian but perceive higher levels of threat are nearly twice as likely to support antidemocratic legislation. They determined that “levels of threat appear to powerfully condition the preferences of the less authoritarian,” noting that “[amongst] those who [were less authoritarian], only 37% favored media censorship”, but highlighted that this percentage doubled to 68% amongst low authoritarian individuals who perceived high threat levels.

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There is, however, only so much that can be gleaned from survey results. It is from this point that Neil Malhotra and Elizabeth Popp start their experimental analysis, “Bridging the Partisan Divisions Over Antiterrorism Politics: The Role of Threat Perceptions” published in Political Research Quarterly in 2012. By conducting an exhaustive experimental analysis of which individuals within the political landscape are most effected by increasing levels of perceived threat, Malhotra and Popp hoped to further understand the relationship between fear and public policy outcomes.

A solid foundation existed for their interest in an experiment on the influence of fear in public policy: with nearly 90% of Americans believing another attack was likely immediately after the attacks on 9/11, the USA PATRIOT ACT enjoyed a unique degree of bipartisan support amongst average Americans. In the six years following the attacks, however, concerns amongst the public that another attack was imminent or likely decreased by 40%, and the bipartisan support for similar anti-terrorism bills rapidly evaporated (as shown in figure 2). In order to understand which members of the population were driving this shift, they developed experimental parameters under which to examine how individuals reacted to shifts in the level of perceived threat.

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Figure 2


Firstly, Malhotra and Popp stratified their participant pool into two categories: self-identified Republicans, and self-identified Democrats. These two groups were measured for their perceived level of threat under normal conditions prior to the experimenters manipulating any variables. This provided Malhotra and Popp with benchmarks against which to measure the rate and level of change in a participants convictions as their perceived level of threat increased. This data is presented in Figure 3.

In their experiment, respondents were questioned as to how the government ought to disseminate information regarding a potential terrorist attack. The independent variable was the likelihood of the attack between 5 and 95 percent (0 and 100 hundred were deemed impossible scenarios). Four dependent variables examined: (1) Do you support or oppose US Government using wiretaps to listen on citizen’s phone conversations in terrorism investigation? (2) Do you support libraries revealing book rental histories in terrorism investigation? (3) Do you support or oppose US Military Strikes and Intervention in Iraq? (4) Do you support restriction of liquids on airplanes? The dependent variables were metrics which represented popular opinion and could potentially be influenced by an increase in perceived threat.

This experimental procedure allowed Malhotra and Popp to manipulate the information environment around each test subject and thusly determine the level of sensitivity of each participant. They expected to see a high degree of sensitivity amongst Democrats, especially those Democrats with high perceived levels of threat under normal circumstances. Amongst Republicans, they predicted little to no sensitivity due to the fact that Republicans were largely supportive of anti-terror policies under normal conditions. By manipulating the information environment – namely the likelihood of an attack being imminent – they were able to analyze how reactionary individuals were to shifts in the perceived level of threat.

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Figure 3

Their results would lead them to conclude that “Republicans, who generally perceive greater terrorist threat and are more supporting of antiterrorism policies” under normal conditions, do not influence the adoption of anti-terror policies; rather, “the effects [of increasing perception of threat on support for anti-terror policies] are concentrated among democrats who perceive a high level of threat”. These results support the hypothesis that democrats who perceive a high degree of threat prior

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Figure 4

to manipulation of the information environment were the individuals who were most likely to reject their ideological foundation and support anti-terror policies (as can be seen in figure 3, and more dramatically, in figure 4).


Republicans, who are typically believed to be the group most influential in the adoption of anti-terror policies, “exhibited strong support for policies independent of the levels of threat, presumably because these policies comported with their longstanding ideological predispositions”. Perhaps most importantly, they concluded that Democrats with high prior perceptions of threat were those most influenced by changes in the information environment, and are in fact driver of many anti-terror policies being adopted.

These two studies, when taken together, demonstrate that human beings are much less driven by their ideological or partisan convictions. Rather, human beings are influenced by externalities. The conclusions of Malhotra and Popp’s experimental analysis demonstrate that the information environment in which we live can radically impact our support for public policy agendas. No less, Hetherington and Suhay demonstrate that the same sensitivity exists amongst individuals who are not identified along partisan divides, even going as deep as fundamental characteristics of our personalities.

Although the data in both studies supports the conclusion that Democrats/less authoritarian individuals are the most likely to be impacted by shifts in the information environment, these studies are limited to the impacts of physical threats. If the variable of analysis was shifted from physical threat to violation of principles in government, one would likely find that Republicans/more authoritarian individuals are more sensitive to shifts in the information environment.


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Table 2

These conclusions have strong implications for everyday life – particularly during campaign seasons. Hit-ads – or those that concentrate on negative information regarding a competing candidate, and which deliver that information with a negative tone – are becoming increasingly common in our time and place.

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Table 3

The shift is dramatic: according to the Wesleyan Media Project, between the years 2000 and 2016, the percentage of negative ads aired has increased by 46% from 14.7% to 60.75%. By comparison, contrast ads – which compare point-for-point the campaign issues of each candidate – have decrease by 54.29% from 66.49% to 12.2% (Table 2, and Table 3) Perhaps more startling are the percentages of negative tone ads from the most recent 2016 election period. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Hillary Clinton’s campaign groups’ distribution of ads were almost 98% negative, relative to Donald Trump’s campaign groups’ distribution being only 56% negative.

Advertisements are a critical manner by which candidates and their campaign organizations can influence the information environment, and thus influence individual’s support or dissent. They are increasingly used to communicate with voters through the television, and more importantly in the 21st century, through our cell phones, tablets, and other devices which facilitate personal interactions through technology. The radical shift in tone from contrast advertisements to outright negative advertisements ought to be alarming to any American, as it indicates a major shift from policy driven campaigns to campaigns driven by the principle of fear. Fear, as such a power tool of coercion, has the ability to override our ideological and partisan convictions, or – perhaps even more alarmingly in the case of the 2016 election – magnify those convictions.

While fear being used as a tool of coercion in a domestic context may be less alarming to some – and to a rare few a simple extension of campaign politics – the utilization of fear by foreign entities ought to concern all Americans. It is significant that fear was used in the same manner by Russian elements during the same 2016 campaign season, as noted in the Office of the Department of National Security’s 2017 report on the scope and significance of Russian interference. Indeed, many attempts were made by Russian entities to alter the perceived fitness and integrity of Hillary Clinton as a potential leader. By spreading false news reports, rumors that she had been involved in the infamous PizzaGate scandal, or otherwise was unable to effectively lead the nation, Russia was able to alter the information environment and magnify concerns amongst voters.

One can no longer ignore the fact that we live in a world that is defined by deliberate negativity and fear in our information environment, whether that fear be accurate or inflated. Although fear has always been a facet of our landscape, it is only in the 21st century that we have come to understand quantitatively what philosophers of old have held as fundamental tenets. Fear is now utilized by innumerable domestic and foreign entities which seek to influence our perception of what is and ought to be for their own ends, whether they be as banal as revenue for a clickbait tabloids, or as nefarious as government entities which seek to distort the integrity of our democratic electoral system. As such, no information around us can be trusted without vetting – especially that which comes through our social media accounts, or the clickbait that so frequently crowds our Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. This places a weighty onus on every American to distrust information, to reject frequently trusted sources, and to seek out information and confirmation of that information with well cited studies, sources, and data.


[1] Mark J. Hetherington & Elizabeth Suhay, “Authoritarianism, Threat, and American’s Support for the War on Terror” American Journal of Political Science 55.3 (July 2001): 546-560

[2] Neil Malhotra and Elizabeth Popp, “Bridging the Partisan Divisions Over Antiterrorism Politics: The Role of Threat Perceptions” Political Research Quarterly 65.3 (2012): 34-47

[3] Ibid

[4] http://mediaproject.wesleyan.edu/releases/oct-2016/

Cover image sourced from https://www.newsbud.com/2015/06/30/disinfowars-with-tom-secker-the-politics-of-fear/


One thought on “Fear in Politics: Fear in the Information Environment

  1. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our commubnity and I enjoyed reading your work. If “OK” please let me know via email.



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