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Fear as Instrument and Effect of Political Communication

Fear is a strong driving force not only for individual action, but also for social developments. This can be seen, for instance, in fear-induced changes in the party system and the electoral behavior of Western democracies. Collective fears are manifold and— especially within German society—widespread, as a long-term analysis of the fears of the German population shows. The emergence and effect of fear are therefore of great interest not only for psychological emotion research, but also for social scientists. To put it simply, fear and anxiety reactions arise from a complex interaction of two perception patterns: the perception of a serious threat and the perception of effective and available defense measures. Both perceptions can be fed by direct experience, but they can also be induced by mediated and direct forms of communication, e.g. by (mass) media or political groups. Communication then becomes Fear Communication. If this happens intentionally, one speaks of persuasive fear communication or fear appeals. It can be assumed that the Internet has further increased the number and effectiveness of 'communicative fear spaces', thus creating expanded possibilities for 'politics of fear'. The Brexit, the unexpected victory of Donald Trump, the success of the AfD in Germany: all this was at least supported by fear appeals. Therefore, fear communication is usually of poor reputation, especially in the political context. It is regarded as a source of anti-enlightenment and irrationality.

Research in this field, on the other hand, is based on the paradigm of the ambivalence of fear communication. After all, the defeat of Geert Wilders in the last Dutch elections or the victory of the Green Party presidential candidate van der Bellen in Austria presumably resulted from fear—fear of right-wing populism. Fear communication can therefore act as a catalyst for socially and democratically desirable developments or as a brake on socially undesirable ones. In fact, however, the connection also works the other way around. The overarching question then is why do which forms of public communication induce which fears and with which social and democratic consequences?


  • R&V Anxiety Monitor: What is Behind the ‘German Angst’?
  • Fear and Political Mobilisation
  • Fear as a Result of Populist and Journalistic Communication
  • Framing Effects in the Digitalization Discourse: Fear of Digitalization

Selected Publication

Marcinkowski, F. (2018). Staat in Angst: politisches Kalkül oder publizistische Nebenwirkung? In M. Eisenegger et al. (Hrsg.) Intimisierung des Öffentlichen. Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer Verlag. 209 – 226

Kieslich, K., Brinkschulte, F., Bennett, M., Groß, T., & Tielsch, K. (2017, November). Refugees Welcome? Media Coverage, Political Communication and the Creation of Fear. Präsentation auf der ECREA Interimskonferenz der Section Political Communication in Zürich (22.-23.11.2017).

Marcinkowski, F., Bennett, M., Best, J., Boehn, J., Brinkschulte, F., Brügger, R., Fechner, D., Groß, T., Kieslich, K., Mallek, S., Neumann, E., Tielsch, K. (2017). Die Quellen der Angst: Populistische Kommunikation und journalistische Berichterstattung im Vergleich. Forschungsreport 1/2017 des Arbeitsbereichs Kommunikation – Medien – Gesellschaft. Münster: Institut für Kommunikationswissenschaft, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität. (Download)

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