Two Leaders, Two Approaches To Coronavirus; Plus: The only thing not to fear is fear itself!
The United States has no national strategy to combat #coronavirus-related misinformation.
Preventing foreign countries from interfering in U.S. elections was top priority for the National Security Agency had, until the pandemic breached containment, but their operations are technical. State and local election officials had to fend for themselves, adding to their crowded portfolios the task of stopping misinformation and countering disinformation. (Of the nearly $500 allocated by Congress to states for election security, about $30,000 was spent on communication).
We are now in a state of national emergency. It took until today — March 16 — for the President to serve the function as a competent crisis communicator. During his press conference, he seemed to tell Americans to prepare for months of self-social distancing — leading to a quick correction from NIH’s Anthony Fauci. (Overstating the pandemic’s disruption is probably the least bad type of misinformation that can spread!).
And state and local officials have stepped into the breach. Some have been strong. Mario Cuomo has mixed straight talk, vulnerability, relatability, and accessibility. He did not temporize about his decision-making in public, which New York City mayor Bill DiBlasio did. He received conflicting advice, and he seemed to want to wait until the advice somehow harmonized, as if all competing interests in a crisis can be reconciled. This is how his press secretary characterized DiBlasio’s critics: “Elected officials calling for things to ‘shut down’ when they don’t have any responsibility/accountability for what that looks like or what comes after it don’t move me much.” First, DiBlasio might not be popular, but he seems to have underestimated how much New Yorkers were waiting for him to signal that it was time to take things seriously before they started to take things seriously. Getting conflicting messages from Gov. Cuomo, who encouraged social distancing, and DiBlasio, who dithered, did did not help. Also, leaders plan. Were there no plans in place to shut down the schools?
DiBlasio seemed to fear fear. We should not fear fear. We should use it. The best public communicators have the ones who have lived through other epidemics, or tragedies requiring massive responses from civil society and the government, and understand that the public has a surprisingly high tolerance for bad news. “Don’t panic people; don’t incite panic.” That seems like the right advice to give to anyone with a large, brittle audience, but it is wrong. Politicians are so afraid of making people afraid that they brim with unconvincing overconfidence. Real panic happens when our expectations of reality suddenly do not match up with reality and our brains have to make really quick decisions we don’t have the information to make. Jody Lanard, a doctor and former WHO communications adviser, warns against underreaction by politicians and people, rather than overreactions, which, per the collective wisdom of psychologists, is actually normal and helps us adjust. Along with Peter Sandman, she writes:
“….part of why it’s so hard for public health officials (and political officeholders) to validate and empathize with our fear, self-doubt, and embarrassment is their own fear, self-doubt, and embarrassment. Imagine not just having to decide what precautions to take for yourself and your family, but also what precautions to take, recommend, and mandate for a whole city, state, or country. Just like us, officials have knots in their stomachs. Just like us, they’re not sure what the right course of action is. Just like us, they’re afraid of coming under attack for overreacting – not just for being foolish, hysterical, and panicky, but also for ruining the stock market, depleting the world’s supply of toilet paper, and forcing people to cancel weddings and church services and sports events.”
The public’s fear is NOT a bigger problem than the pandemic. Believing that it is ignores what we know about fear, about communication, and about information processing. That’s not to say that extreme predictions can’t be alarmist, and no one with knowledge of how fear works in crises would suggest that we let people alone with their anxieties. It has to be channeled; normally, politicians with guts and brains do this. In a vacuum, fear becomes dangerous. In context, it becomes adaptive and useful.
Check out this excellent combination of responsible mongering and social pressure from Baltimore’s public health authorities:
Collaborative journalism and competitive journalism. The COVID Tracking Project, the brainchild of the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, is working with volunteers and journalists to do what the government refuses to do: provide “the most comprehensive state-level testing data.) CDC.gov does not update its tallies on the weekends; the site is static and not terribly useful beyond giving people the government’s bottom-line advice, which has often been super-ceded by a Presidential tweet or a state and local action.
Competitive journalism is essential, too. It’s why we get the projections the CDC is afraid to give Americans, and we get insights into testing failings, and we learn who is reliable and who is not. I had criticized CNN for declaring the outbreak to be a pandemic before the WHO did, but CNN was right, even if there was some competitive motive here – they want more eyeballs for capitalist reasons, of course, but I am sure that the decision amplified people’s correct intuition about what is, in fact, happening. Often, media hype – a direct product of competitive journalism – is toxic. Here, it is helpful.
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