Entertainment, QAnon, and the Politics of Fear

Photograph Source: Derivative work: J JMesserly – Public Domain

Pogo’s wisdom applies to our country divided by the politics of fear: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This is important because fear is the source of most anger and hate, which is fed by ignorance and stereotypes often promoted by popular culture and disinformation. Our current situation, highlighted by digital misinformation and by the absurd QAnon conspiracy of a government run by satanic worshipping pedophiles, is enabled by a profitable entertainment media industry fueled by fearful messages and images, as well as new communication formats that manipulate audiences.

My argument is that fear has been transformed by an entertainment oriented popular culture, including news organizations, as well as public agencies and officials who have a stake in fear. They provide the content for the ever-expanding market for entertainment. And it is fear that makes for good entertainment such as Donald Trump’s reality TV persona (“The Apprentice”) as well as his Presidential campaign and four years in office powered by the politics of fear that appealed to many of his followers.

Our research on propaganda campaigns suggests that QAnon’s appeals to fight evil and to “save the children” replicates the 1980s moral panic about “missing children” and “stranger danger” that was based on the false claim that as many as 1.5 million children were abducted, molested, and even killed by predators. Most kids labeled as missing had run away from abusive homes or had been removed by separated parents or grandparents. Still, the myth persists, despite clear evidence that guns at home and auto accidents dwarf the risks of strangers for children.

It was not just the plethora of fearful content and images, but also the media logic that emphasized short, visual, dramatic and often conflictual reports. “Talking heads” providing context and clarification fared poorly in competitive ratings and market share. TV journalism stressed action visuals, especially those involving police, car chases; war coverage involved snippets of combat, or what field producers referred to as “bang-bang.” Audiences liked this entertainment format and came to expect it from not only news reports, but other communication contexts as well, including sports reporting, religious services, educational institutions, and political messages as well. This does not mean that the “media are to blame,” but rather that the quest for high TV ratings and competitive popular culture and movie industries contributed to a barrage of public concerns about safety, security, and an unpredictable future.

And the staple for this video format was fear: Fear sold, got high ratings, and later in the digital age, was promoted as ‘click bait.’ Fearful reports, say, about crime and drugs and threats to one’s family and children struck a responsive chord in viewers; no thinking was necessary to pay attention, just an emotional response. TV news producers realized that fear grabbed viewers’ and politicians’ attention; visually sensationalized reports with little context, about crime, drugs, gangs, and violence drove ratings and empowered politicians to intervene for public safety, starting several drug wars and decades of massive incarceration (e.g., Three Strikes, mandatory sentencing). Heeding public outcries about mediated-fear, politicians from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton celebrated and campaigned on the crime threat with draconian legislation that devastated Black Americans in our nation’s central cities.

Much of this menu of fear to protect families and children stressed fear of “the other,” minority groups, foreigners, as well as immigrants. Domestic terrorism should have been on America’s radar, but it wasn’t, even after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children, and injuring hundreds. It was the 9/11 airliner terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda operatives that launched the contemporary emphasis on Muslims, Middle Eastern people, and non-European foreigners. The Bush administration’s responses included two wars, funded illegal prisons, kidnapped and tortured suspects, beefed up national surveillance, and promoted a massive propaganda campaign of fear that linked drug sales to terrorism, including a 2002 Super Bowl ad: “If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America.”

The growth of the internet and digital media overlapped with the emergence of powerful right-wing radio and cable stations dedicated to conservative politics and policies, particularly stressing the numerous threats to families and national security from crime and terrorism. Social media–especially Facebook and Twitter–that were instantaneous, personal, and visual, promoted audience involvement and group identity with like-minded participants. These sites became heavily politicized with conspiracy promoters, particularly after the election of Barack Obama, challenging his anti-Americanism and allegations that he was not an American citizen and was partial to Muslims, Black Americans, and that his Affordable Care Act was socialistic.

Donald Trump was a strong supporter of the “birther movement,” that Obama was not born in the United States, and used Fox News as well as social media, especially Twitter, to promote the politics of fear with nativistic and anti-immigrant views. The major TV networks carried his tweets and entertaining campaign messages of the decline of American society, crude attacks of his rivals, the threats from non-Americans. He stressed how conspiratorial cabals were working against America’s future. He reiterated that the established news media were fake and were part of the conspiracy.

The new digital ecology of communication empowered followers to participate in receiving reports to confirm this, retweeting them, and selecting like-minded chats, often orchestrated by foreign agents selling the politics of fear. QAnon simply cultivated the fear and mistrust of government, established institutions, and directed hope for salvation to a mythical leader—Donald Trump– who would save the children. Pogo was right!

David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump (2023).