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How Harper's Anti-Terrorism Bill Plays Into Fear Tactics

02/26/2015 12:34 EST | Updated 04/28/2015 05:59 EDT

Fear is pretty salient these days. As a country we feel insecure about a great deal -- the faltering economy, climate instability, and of course threats to our safety from railways, contaminated food, and, of course, the specter of international terrorism.

The people behind our fear of international terrorism are crack communicators. This not only makes us susceptible to their exquisitely crafted communications -- it makes the job of politicians much easier, since the first part of the "fear appeal equation" has been so well constructed for them.

For those of us who think that the Harper government is going too far with anti-terror legislation, it's important to understand how these fear appeals work. Conveniently, the fear appeals being made by ISIS, Al Shabab, and the other myriad terror groups we tend to lump together are quite literally textbook examples of fear appeals. What's more, the terrorists and our own government actually work together for a good part of the process, increasing the fear we feel for their own insidious ends.

The Fear Appeal Equation

How to use fear to win the communications game was summed up neatly by Hovland et al. in their 1953 classic Communication and Persuasion:

Content Cues→Emotional Reaction→Reassuring Recommendation

If you're going to persuade someone to do something using fear, your communication needs to start by priming the audience with content cues: what should we fear? So in the example of terrorism, when Al Shabab wants to get our attention, they don't dress in Hawaiian shirts; they wear face masks and sport Kalashnikovs.

The second step is to provoke an emotional reaction. Luckily, in the case of terrorism, the emotional reaction has likely already started with the content cues. But there are some very precise rules about how this emotional reaction is provoked.

First, the threat must have clear implications. With terrorism, the implications of the threat are pretty clear: death, at random, when you least expect it.

Second, the threat must be imminent -- it has to be pressing, not something that we may have to deal with in a few decades, or that comes on too gradually (a good reason why alarmism doesn't work when it comes to climate change).

In Canada at least, the government has helped the terrorists make their threats far more imminent by classifying the attacks last fall in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu and Ottawa as terrorism. The fact that the assailants in both of these cases weren't part of terrorist organizations seems to be beside the point for the Harper government.

Third, the threat should remain relatively vague; details, it turns out, undermine a good fear appeal. According to Hovland and company, fear appeals that give too many details fail because the audience is more likely to see them as propaganda, rather than a genuine communication.

The recent Al Shabab video targeting the West Edmonton Mall follows the first two steps of the fear appeal equation perfectly. Their video presents an obvious militant, face covered, brandishing weapons (content cues). It goes on to provoke an emotional reaction with a clear danger -- an attack on the West Edmonton Mall -- that conveniently leaves out many important details. They reveal no plans for their attack, only mentioning a well-known Canadian commercial centre, one they likely found on Google. Again, the imminence here is provided by our government's connection between these anonymous men on video, and the very real actions of two disturbed men in Canada last fall.

Thus in the case of terrorism, the two players in the communications game -- the terrorists themselves and the government tasked with protecting us -- work together to provoke an emotional reaction in the Canadian public. Without the connections made by the Harper government between last fall's attacks and "terrorism" the threats made by the various specific terrorist organizations would lack any urgency. (Thankfully, it seems that many Canadians understand that these connections are tenuous at best).

Granted, since 9/11, Europe has seen a good deal of terrorist activity, which might provide some urgency to the Canadian mindset. But we have little reason to connect that activity to our own insecurity. For instance, some have argued that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo last month had more to do with France's difficulty integrating ethnic Algerian citizens than ISIS gaining a foothold in Europe.

While the fear we feel from terror threats is amplified through an effective collaboration between terrorist organizations and our government, when it comes to the final step of offering a reassuring recommendation, the government must work alone. To this end, the federal government has introduced Bill C-51, which aims to reassure the Canadian public that with the tools contained in this new legislation, our security forces will be capable of preventing future terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, it seems that this move has done little to reassure many of us who see the growth of the surveillance state as far more frightful than any masked bogeyman sending video missives from Libya or the Levant. For former judges, former prime ministers, law professors, and many everyday Canadians, Bill C-51 is the real threat to our freedom and security. And if so many of us are more afraid of the government than we are of the terrorists, I think we had best re-examine the reassurances the feds are feeding us.

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