Spread of public rumour and exaggeration is the worst virus

Spread of public rumour and exaggeration is the worst virus

The responsibility of the media is greater in crises

Peter Dunne

Wellington, March 19, 2020

“This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

So spoke Franklin Roosevelt when giving his first Inaugural address to the American people in March 1933. He was, of course, speaking about the Great Depression which had wracked his country and the world since the great share market crash of October 1929, but his words are just as apposite today as the world confronts the Covid-19 pandemic.

Daily explosion of cases 

Governments, businesses, health professionals and citizens everywhere are reeling as each new revelation about Covid-19 occurs, or as the daily explosion in the numbers of cases around the world is announced.

While all these agencies are genuinely doing their best to respond appropriately, none of them really knows what the duration of the virus will be, how severe it will get, or what the long-term consequences will be for world economies and social cohesion.

Suddenly, those television series popular in the 1970s and 1980s about small groups of survivors from either a nuclear holocaust or a global pandemic trying to re-establish social order and functional communities do not seem that fictional anymore.

Nameless, unjustified terror 

This is just the type of environment where the best endeavours of governments and civil authorities can be easily and quickly derailed by rumour, gossip, idle speculation and ignorance that unchecked gives rise to the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” that Roosevelt was so keen to quell.

While governments can act responsibly to stimulate their economies to keep as many of their citizens as possible employed and businesses afloat, to lay the ground work for recovery, and while they can endeavour to ensure the best possible medical services are available, it is almost impossible for them to manage the spread of public opinion.

That is a virus of itself.

Community perspective

Private views about what is happening, formed on whatever basis, pass the same way as the virus from one person to the next, to form a community perspective.

Any suggestion that access to medical care is not being offered even-handedly, or that some groups in society are missing out, or that people are not being told the full story can multiply rapidly and become  ultimately unqualified fact in the eyes of at least some sections of the community.

At that point, the fear Roosevelt referred to sets in, and breeds envy, hatred and division, which, now unlike then, will be fomented and spread by social media, as we have seen in other areas.

Efficient Deft management 

But governments cannot manage all this by themselves. In fact, stentorian government messages on how people should behave are likely to have precisely the opposite effect.

Even in a crisis, people do not like being told what to do, but they will respond positively to what they think were all their own ideas, or at least the suggestions of those around them.

Peer pressure to conform remains the most powerful incentive of all.

Public messaging from governments and health authorities needs therefore to be simple, consistent, positive and repetitive, as not everyone will be hearing them at the same time, or as often.

Coordinated messaging 

The messaging also needs to be co-ordinated and evidence based.

The news media has a huge role to play, focusing on the information people need to have to be able to go about their daily lives securely and confidently, rather than the latest angle on the ongoing situation.

In this environment, the drama of the event must give way to the wellbeing of the citizen, and the protection of public calm.

The Prime Minister struck the right tone when she told Parliament “Be strong, be kind, we will be ok”.  But that message cannot be left as just a one-off, a catchy line at the end of a speech in the House. It has to become almost a new mantra, for the government, business, the health sector and the community as a whole, to be constantly repeated and upheld.

That way, assuming the maintenance of consistent and co-ordinated policy responses, we will overcome fear, prejudice and ignorance.

We will “revive and prosper.”

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led government from 1999 to 2017. He lives in Wellington.

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