Fear for Sale: It’s Everywhere Online

There’s something I’ve noticed about the Internet lately. I suppose I’ve noted this for some time, but it’s become more clear to me recently. The masses are not critical of what they see and read. There’s fear for sale, and we’re buying it.

An Example of Fear for Sale Online

Last month, an article written by the makers of an app to help protect children on the Internet was published on Medium,

I’m a 37-Year-Old Mom & I Spent Seven Days Online as an 11-Year-Old Girl. Here’s What I Learned.

The article goes into expose-like undercover reporting about the evils of men preying upon young girls on the Internet. I understand that this happens. I don’t condone these kinds of behaviors by grown men toward underage girls. But that’s not my concern with the article. My concern has more to do with the responses to the article than the article itself.

The majority of responses were from people who were appalled by the writer’s discoveries. The majority praised her work. And yes, her discoveries are appalling and I’m sure the work is emotionally toiling. However, we must remember that the writer of the article freely took on the personas of young girls in order to make her claims. This in itself is a little disturbing. Responders found it courageous. But is it really? Or is it just a ploy to sell more apps?

There were a small minority of comments that opposed the article. One in particular said, “this is nothing more than an advertisement to sell more apps.” And you know what? I think he’s onto something. Medium has limited rules in regard to articles being used as propaganda to sell stuff. In fact, most social media is chock full of propaganda in the form of so-called essay writing. It’s writing, but it’s something more.

So what’s really going on here? Maybe the article in question is simply selling fear to thousands of parents. Yes, there are predators online. I have a teenage daughter myself. We’ve talked about these issues. But I’ve always stopped short of buying an app, or constantly monitoring her electronic devices. How will she ever learn to navigate these waters if she’s not allowed to do so? And how will she ever trust me if I don’t trust her? Communication is key.

It’s so simple to sell fear. Why? Because readers and viewers are not critical. They react emotionally and can’t see that an article is often simply a tactic to scare them into buying something.

Another Example of Fear for Sale

In 2018, I was diagnosed with a slow-progressing  blood cancer called Polycythemia Vera. Since my diagnosis I’ve participated in several Facebook support groups. Recently, after joining a support group, I noticed something. In each group I’ve joined, someone strongly started advocating for the drug Interferon by my first or second post on the group’s page.

Interferon has shown some positive results in treating PV. However, there have also been many problems with toxicity among some groups of patients. And some have not responded to the drug at all. And it’s not recommended for patients like me, in the very early stages of the disease. Yet that’s what these group members were promoting.

So when I get these messages, I get suspicious. They suggest that I’m more likely to have a clotting event and die if I don’t use Interferon. It’s fear appeal. I’m going to die anyway. Most people live anywhere from 15-30 years with PV. I’m still in good health with very few effects of the disease. My blood is kept thin by phlebotomy, and I have several options for drugs when they become needed. Why would I take excessive amounts of chemicals now?

Again, I smell a skunk. It’s my suspicion that these responses to my posts that seem to outright push Interferon are actually paid promoters for the drug. Can I prove that? No. But I can make a rational judgment call. And if they are what I think they are, they’re trying to sell me by scaring me into believing I’m going to die sooner without the drug.

Fear Is a Primary Manipulator

We see it everywhere. From politics to insurance policies, fear is used to sell ideas, products, and services. The problem enters when these fear appeals and tactics are slipped into our media and entertainment as if some kind of profound truth. It’s like slipping poison into the kool-aid.

Fear is a primary emotion. It’s also a strong manipulator. It’s easy to buy into fear appeal and then buy something we believe will reduce that fear. But who are the predators? Although I find it troubling that some men prey on young girls online, isn’t it ironic that an app company preys on parents’ fears? Monkey see, monkey do?

There are two simple things to remember today:

  1. It’s very simple for individuals, organizations, and advertisers to sneak buttloads of propaganda into our entertainment and social media. It’s everywhere online.
  2. It’s our responsibility to be critical consumers of information, questioning everything we read and view. Educate, communicate, and don’t make quick emotional decisions.

I encourage you to be critical. Don’t jump to conclusions about the things you see and read online. Do some research. Think critically. Ask questions. Who is writing the article? Who do they work for? What do they have to gain?

Life is complicated enough without falling for online fear appeals that lead us to buy things we probably don’t really need. It’s your hard-earned money.