The power of fear in the public safety field

Interesting notes from a talk by Dinah Boyd at a recent SXSW titled ‘The Power of Fear in Networked Publics’. It raises some (unintentional?) questions about how we conceive of threats particularly in law enforcement and homeland security and how the integration of social media (something I’ve recommended) might actually makes things worse rather than better.

So, to begin with, let’s establish the existence of the culture of fear. Boyd talks about it as it relates to the general public with the influence of the media (‘Is your apple sauce killing you? Tune in to your local news!’), politicians (‘This is the most critical election in all of history! Make the wrong decision and civilization crumbles.’), and advertisers (‘Our product kills 99.9% of all germs…Regular tap water only kills 99.8%…Don’t kill your family!’).

The same thing happens in the crime/homeland security field. Some of this is intentional (justifying a budget, getting access to new resources, keeping a position, etc.) and some of it is not. When you’re steeped in the nuts and bolts of crime or dedicating your life to preventing the next terrorist attack it’s easy for events to take up all of your perspective. This is especially problematic when you have nothing to compare it to. If you live in the Midwest of the United States, a small rise (as viewed by someone who regularly sees the Appalachian Mountains) can be called a hill. Describing the Appalachians as mountains might meet with a snort by those who’ve seen the Rockies or the Hindu Kush.

So, today Iran is often described in the same apocalyptic terms as the USSR was. Al-Qaeda (circa 2012) is not the same organization it was in 2000 yet all too often it’s talked about like it is. I think that’s because al-Qaeda (since 9/11) was always seen as the ’11’ on terrorist amplifier. Likewise, when it comes to state threats, after the USSR we needed to find a new ’11’. We’ve been trying on a variety (Iraq, North Korea, Iraq again, China) but none are totally satisfactory.* Since that notion is virtually hardwired in us (because of political expediency, intellectual laziness and bureaucratic self-preservation) whenever there’s a downward trend in terms of threat (either in intent or capabilities) that becomes the new ’11’. The same vocabulary, concern, and calls to action are applied.

This is not a call to ignore threats but rather to spend some time thinking about how we should prioritize them and put them into perspective. Now, this certainly won’t be easy. This ratcheting up of threats (or, at least the inability to ratchet them down when appropriate) is reinforced by the same process occurring in the public sphere. It may be that most child abductions are done by family members or people familiar with the victim. Still, the dark stranger sells more papers and both reassures (it can’t be anyone we know) and frightens (could it be that guy? How about that guy?!) parents and moves many to action (demanding public officials do something). Rather than see if the facts conform to popular opinion and explaining the difference when they don’t (and risking hysterics about how ‘experts’ can’t be trusted and therefore losing the next election) it’s easier to appear to do something: form a task force…pass new draconian laws…whatever. Meanwhile, the real problem continues.

For gun crime, terrorism, or other threats, just rinse and repeat.

Boyd then moves to talk about how social media encourages users to tap into fear in order to compete for the attention of others in an environment that is highly competitive for people’s attention.

Attention is indeed the currency of contemporary society. Hysteria is one element of this, whether it plays out as fear-mongering or simply drama.

This tendency is one thing that social media won’t be able to fix in the intelligence community. There will still be a desire (perhaps an increased one) to hype threats (consciously or not). I’ve often bemoaned the fact that too many intelligence shops focus on the quantity of their production rather than quality. I’ve also suggested that some ways to move beyond this is to look at metrics of readership (subscriptions, comments, etc.) but that poses the very real risk of falling into this trap. If people believe their jobs (or the fortunes of their agency) depend on page-views, subscriptions or comments then you risk pandering to an audience. Some agencies (I fear too many) will go into full Chicken Little mode, making every threat seem worthy of DEFCON 1 status.

After all, how many people want to read or hear about a moderate threat (or no threat)? Perhaps only if someone else has hyped it. I just don’t think we’re wired to be interested in that sort of thing. But…intelligence analysis is all about overcoming our mind’s shortcut behavior and cognitive biases. And it’s not impossible to do. The sciences can provide us with a template of how a community can engage in (generally) non-fear/hype based information dissemination with success.

Of course, as I’ve remarked on before, there’s a significant anti-intellectual streak that runs through the law enforcement/homeland security community that isn’t present in the scientific community. Too often this lowest common denominator is used as a crutch to prevent all progress. If the most lethargic troglodyte won’t take to an initiative enthusiastically, well, then we’ll just have to continue doing things the way we always have.**

So, how to solve the fear inflation problem, especially if everyone decides to take my suggestion and start incorporating social media into intelligence production? (Yeah, big shot. How are you going to fix this?) Well, I’m not really sure. Readership metrics are only a step in the right direction from strict quantity measures but clearly don’t get us all the way there. Even measuring citations isn’t good enough (just look at HuffPo). Formal peer review is too cumbersome and time consuming. Informal peer review (where you have people commenting on other people’s work, perhaps like a Small Wars Journal) might work but, I fear, could quickly devolve into ‘You write something favorable about my stuff and I’ll do the same for you’ or become too cliquish. Plus there’s a culture of not critisizing other agency’s work publicly (privately is a whole different ball of wax).

As much as I’d like to give you a solution, I’m afraid I’m just not sure I have one. Yet…

*China may be in 10 or 20 years but we need something to freak out about now! Dammit.

**A recent suggestion to conduct a ‘webinar’ was described as only for those who are ‘technologically sophisticated’. Apparently, clicking on a hyperlink and enter a name is the sort of lofty task reserved for those who split atoms in their spare time.

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