CuRAtOR: Challenging online feaR And OtheRing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Lincoln
Department Name: School of Computer Science


Cultures of fear can be spread, either deliberately or otherwise, by a wide range of agents including the media, government, science, the arts, industry and politics. The ease of which fear can be generated means that today's society remains inordinately fearful of improbable harms and dangers. A good deal of societal fear stems from mistrust of 'the Other': a term used to describe individuals or groups that are, quite simply, 'not like us'. In this project, we explicitly explore this notion of 'Othering' as it occurs in situations where 'the Other' are seen as "anomalous," "peculiar," or "deviant" and hence negatively perceived, stigmatised, excluded, marginalised and discriminated against. Recent high-profile examples of practices of Othering in the UK include the exclamation that "tens of thousands of eastern Europeans" would enter the UK when immigration restrictions were lifted at the beginning of 2014 resulting in, for instance, a "crime wave", and the "poverty-porn" portrayal on broadcast television of seemingly whole communities of "benefit claimants living off of taxpayers' earnings". Such practices can lead to a lack of tolerance, respect and inclusion, as well as actual fear, mistrust and marginalisation of whole communities; these effects have severe and well-known implications for local communities as well as for national social cohesion.

There are significant unanswered questions regarding how acts of Othering translates into effects on real populations and in real contexts, and what role online digital media can have in propagating cultures of fear and mistrust. With online social media, no longer is fear delivered exclusively in a top down manner, (e.g. from government and the mainstream media). Instead it is now also delivered from the grassroots level and therefore insidiously present in the user-generated social data streams that we absorb from our encounters with the web, and, in particular, with platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Recent observations of social media discussions of the Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street have, for instance, highlighted the high levels of antipathy, anger and abuse directed at the community portrayed within the programme. Fear may also be unwittingly, yet pervasively, propagated by the plethora of emerging digital apps, data and services that promise to improve our lives; for instance, the release of open crime data is meant to increase confidence in our law enforcement agencies, yet its actual effect is to increase fear of crime and, yet again, stigmatise communities.

The focus of this project are the cultures of fear that are propagated through online Othering and how this leads to subsequent mistrust of groups or communities. Our research will generate an understanding of how the deliberate design of online media services and platforms can influence and oppose cultures of fear and result in cultures of empathy that can actively, and strategically, reduce or eliminate mistrust and negative consequences of Othering. We will actively collaborate with stakeholders to co-design new digital services that facilitate wide-scale empathy with specifically chosen often-Othered groups. This will include active collaboration with broadcast media organisations to develop a range of interactive, digital online experiences delivered alongside traditional media. We will also undertake online ethnographies and data collection, where prior or existing activities have portrayed a group in ways that actively provoke Othering as evidenced through discourse on social and traditional media; in this instance we will design and deliver a set of digital services to counter this in a deliberate manner.

Planned Impact

First, the primary beneficiaries of this project will be those INDIVIDUALS and GROUPS that have been, are being or likely to be subject to 'Othering' through processes of fear generation on-line. We recognise one way of understanding their situation, of accessing their perspectives and indeed to inform relevant interventions is through the support and advocacy groups that seek to represent them. Linking with these people and with those that seek to represent them is essential to address the aims of this project: to understand how these processes happen, how the characteristics of online interaction may intensify or attenuate these processes and how to design and deploy digital interventions that can create empathy with, rather than fear about, these individuals and groups. As such, these individuals and groups will benefit from the development of technologies that promote awareness of, access to and use of alternative representations that have the capacity to reduce fear and othering against them and form new relationships across social and cultural groups.

Second, further beneficiaries come in the form of BROADCAST MEDIA SECTOR, especially those who are publicly funded, who have a remit to represent culturally diverse and balanced accounts of British social life and current affairs. Organisations such as the BBC (one of our project partners) and Channel 4 are increasingly exploring and exploiting the potential offered by social and hyper-local media technologies. Therefore, there is a recognised need within this sector to increase understanding of how the use of these new types of participatory media can have positive and negative effects on audiences and the segments of the population represented on broadcast programming.

Third, the outcomes of the work will be of interest to GOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES, POLITICIANS and POLICY THINK-TANKS implicated in the 'open data' movement (e.g.,, the Open Data Institute). We expect that the findings of our work will raise implications for the ways in which statistical data on health, wellbeing, crime (and more) are published online and made available for aggregating with other data sets. This may include highlighting unexpected consequences for the publishing of data that can be related to specific locations and members of society, and also providing access to new tools that allow the aggregating and presentation of open data sets in new ways that counter-act these challenges.

Fourth, the project will be of interest to providers of online social media services-such as Twitter and Facebook. A significant amount of recent publicity has surrounded the use of social media and its negative social side-effects in relation to acts of online bullying and harassment and proliferation. This has notable consequences for these commercial organisations, such as reduced income from advertisers and greater pressure from government and pressure groups to implement more robust privacy and counter-harassment measures. As such, we expect both our analysis of online discourse and the design features embedded within our critical and adversarial technologies to be of great interest to such companies, with a view to implement aspects of designs in their own services.

Finally, another set of core beneficiaries will be organisations with an interest in ONLINE INFLUENCE, behaviour change, and persuasion. This will include governmental research organisations (such as DSTL) and a range of government departments and agencies to whom changing behaviour is part of their core business. We have particular links with policy officials working in this area at Defra and the Food Standards Agency

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/M003574/1 31/08/2014 31/10/2015 £773,384
ES/M003574/2 Transfer ES/M003574/1 01/11/2015 30/04/2018 £560,913
ResearchFish maintains a duplicate of it here - but for updates please refer to the Northumbria Version ES/M003574/2

Findings to-date are therefore limited specifically to the scoping and exploratory work around existing cases of Othering online. Findings around understanding online 'second-screening' social media discussion around Benefits Street can be found in [1]; in summary we found that discussion during, and in-between, TV broadcasts was characterised by distinctly different qualities, topics and user behaviours and that, as perhaps expected and as hypothesized by the Project, these findings offer design opportunities for social media services to (i) support more balanced real-time commentaries of politically-charged media, (ii) actively promote discussion to continue after, and between, television programming; and (iii) incorporate different motivations and attitudes towards socio-political concerns, as well as different practices of communicating those concerns. Findings around understanding of obesity discussion online can be found in [2]; in summary we found that stigma and othering as a performative act, was visible in the content and form of what people say online and how they say it, and additionally (as in [1]) we noted strong potential for software design and activism to work together through "adversarial design" to counter Othering in this context. Finally preliminary findings around observing exiting activism to counter online Othering can be found in [3]; in this work we found that digital platforms utilisation was informed by the norms of a campaign's target audience, and that varied techniques exist for exerting power over and controlling online discussion. Each set of findings are therefore supportive of the Project's central thread that Othering might be countered - or at least mediated - by deliberate design of social/digital activities, platforms and services.

[1] Phil Brooker, John Vines, Selina Sutton, Julie Barnett, Tom Feltwell, and Shaun Lawson. 2015. Debating Poverty Porn on Twitter: Social Media as a Place for Everyday Socio-Political Talk. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '15). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 3177-3186. DOI=10.1145/2702123.2702291.

[2] Phil Brooker, Julie Barnett, John Vines, Tom Feltwell & Shaun Lawson (2015) Online Talk Around Obesity-Related News Media: Connecting Information Delivery with Public Perception, 3rd Annual Weight Stigma Conference, 18-19 September, Reykjavik, Iceland
Exploitation Route Too early to say.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice