Viruses have an undeniable ability to create an environment of fear in any community. The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris by Mark Honigsbaum mentions that “infectious diseases have long been objects of rumour and panic.
When the identity of the pathogen is unknown or uncertain, and information about the outbreak is veiled in secrecy, these rumours — and the fears that attend them — can quickly spiral out of control.”
Health officials, the media, and the public all have a role to play in shaping the perception of any outbreak. Public solidarity and trust in governments’ preventative measures is imperative in leading a cohesive response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Communications will continue to play an important role in shaping people’s perceptions and subsequent behaviours. Fortunately, we have been here before and history offers valuable lessons
Unfortunately, in a world of fake news and internet trolls, people are susceptible to believing in wild conspiracy theories. The more outrageous the story, the more likely it’s to gain traction. Left unchecked, these communication gaps can breed deep mistrust of medical professionals, authorities, and even communities.
Strategic communications is a complex enough field requiring the use of multiple messaging platforms to reach diverse audiences. Add social media to the communication paradigm, with its unique ability to allow for dynamic communication among wider audiences, further increases that complexity.
It is vital that communications cuts through the noise to engage all segments of the public. Educating everyone about the virus and efforts to prevent its spread is critical to any public health messaging campaign.
Keeping the public well informed serves three main purposes. The first helps to actively fight the virus, by ensuring that all segments of society are well informed of the proper preventative measures necessary to protect oneself.
Fear of the unknown
The second is to arm the public with the knowledge they need to discredit fake news and misinformation independently. Finally, educating the public gives them the strength to confront the pandemic by reducing fear of the unknown.
In the face of any new outbreak, established medical knowledge and faith in the health care system can be temporarily undermined as medical professionals continue to learn more about the spread of a new disease.
This is part of the normal process of scientific research, which involves constantly questioning results. It is this very process which is responsible for the incredible advancement the human race has witnessed in the field of medical research.
While advancements in medical sciences are undoubtedly important, they also uncover new information on infections and generate recommendations on certain human behaviours. The challenge comes in communicating such information to the public who have often have their own biases.
In addition, poor public messaging of medical information can further affect the way the public interprets data, risking further misinformation.
Inconclusive medical studies and recommendations can lead to long-lasting false perceptions. Unfortunately, people have relied on outdated medical studies in the past much to the detriment of society.
Dr. Dorothy Crawford highlights in her book The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses that in 1998, a later disproven report published in The Lancet suggested a link between child autism and measles vaccinations.
The report generated enough media interest that enough people opted against the vaccination, thereby allowing the virus an opportunity to re-emerge among the unimmunized. It is essential that public messages surrounding medical announcements be clearly explained and prepared for easy public consumption.
The public must also be more motivated to avoid misinterpreting medical findings by carrying out their own research into medical findings.
Both traditional and social media have an important role in delivering news to an already germ sensitive public. Credible news outlets are heavily relied on to ensure that the public is kept up to date on the latest findings.
They also contribute to ensuring that the highest standards are met whether it be investigating medical research or reporting on the latest preventative measures being put in place.
Their role upholding the integrity of information in the public domain by challenging dubious claims and countering fake news is vital. Unfortunately, some of the coverage of the pandemic is sensational for the sake of viewership.
Combating the pandemic
While increased viewership looks good for ratings, it only contributes to fears that may be blown out of proportion. Ultimately, the media shares responsibility in combating the pandemic.
Social media on the other hand is a double-edged sword. It has the power to facilitate almost instantaneous two-way dialogue with all demographics, ensuring that information reaches everybody quickly while offering an opportunity to gauge the public’s response.
However, it can also spread misinformation faster than any other medium. Shock value material can stir up powerful emotions causing people to react without rationalising.
Often times, such content lacks the integrity and best practises that we would normally associate with credible news sources. At best, shocking clips and images shared on social media are done so for entertainment and are largely disregarded.
At worst, an incomplete story so often shared can lead to generalising information and scapegoating. To combat this, we must all recognise our shared responsibility for our online actions. Think twice before forwarding that clip or image which is designed to shock us or make us laugh.
Even if we know it to be false, others may misinterpret it and develop harmful false perceptions.
The disease will live in the minds of everyone long after its conclusion. The public however will remain germ conscious and will continue to have an appetite for relevant news.
Communications will continue to play an important role in shaping people’s perceptions and subsequent behaviours. Fortunately, we have been here before and history offers valuable lessons.
As Dr. Christian McMillen put it in Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction, “History is often forgotten and rediscovered only when we confront contemporary epidemics and pandemics, and thus patterns from the past are repeated thoughtlessly.” It is up to us to recognise the patterns we see today and utilise the lessons of the past.
Khaled Al Falasi is a communications professional based in Abu Dhabi