The CuRAtOR (Challenging online feaR And OtheRing) project, led by the University of Lincoln, will explore where and how representations of certain minority groups by government and broadcast media can lead to discrimination driven by social media.

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.

Examples of this include the recent portrayal of a (seemingly) whole community of benefit claimants in Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Observations of social media discussions about the documentary highlighted high levels of antipathy, anger and abuse directed at the community portrayed within the programme.

Funded by a £750,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Empathy and Trust In Communicating ONline (EMoTICON) call, the research will focus on understanding how empathy and trust are developed, maintained, transformed and lost in social media interactions.

Principal Investigator, Professor Shaun Lawson from the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, said: “One way of marginalising communities is by instilling fear in the general public. What is not understood at present is the interplay between traditional broadcast media, government messages and what’s happening online with social media, particularly on Twitter and Facebook.

“There are significant unanswered questions on what role online digital media can have in propagating cultures of fear and mistrust. The big question, however, is whether the outwardly vitriolic reaction to the people in programmes like Benefits Street is actually enforcing the negative perception, and if not what is really happening.”

The second aspect of the three-year project will investigate the possibility of creating alternative digital experiences that might counteract the negative effects of this kind of discrimination.

Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Bath, Julie Barnett added: “This is a very exciting interdisciplinary project to be part of. Developing a better understanding of how social media can enable cultures of empathy to thrive is really important in the face of recent examples of it being used to marginalise and exclude.

“Over the next three years, as well as the interactions with the other universities that are part of the research team, the project is going to benefit from linking with work being done within the Engaging with Interactive Technologies group in the Psychology Department and the Institute for Policy Research - a great forum for debate about emerging policy implications.”

The project will also look at how the media and emerging digital data contributes to the unfair portrayal of communities. For instance, the release of open crime data is intended to increase confidence in our law enforcement agencies, yet its effect is to increase fear of crime.

The project team also includes researchers from Newcastle, Nottingham and Aberdeen universities. For more on the EMoTICON call, go to