From the Nazi party’s antisemitic propaganda, to George H W Bush’s Willie Horton ad, politicians have long been using fear to influence voters.
“In Adam Curtis’s 2004 film, The Power of Nightmares, he talks about how politicians use fear as a way to hold on to power, telling stories about phantom enemies as a way to control the masses,” says copywriter Nick Asbury. “Occasionally, you get a politician who runs on a positive message – Obama’s Hope, or Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream. But by and large, political campaigns on all sides tap into fear.”
It’s an effective tactic – one that leans into our primal instincts and our tendency to act on emotion and instinct rather than reason and logic (something the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explored at length in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow). Thanks to social media and 24-hour news coverage, these messages can spread further and faster than ever before. Campaigns are no longer limited to TV ads and billboards; instead, parties and their supporters can reach voters through dark ads and fake news, operating outside of mainstream media (and the rules imposed by electoral commissions and regulators). It has become difficult to distinguish fact from propaganda, and sensationalism seems to have won out over nuanced debate.