Opinion

How ‘fear appeals’ and disinformation may be manipulating the public on COVID

Communication by public health officials during a pandemic may involve an organized strategy that includes some misrepresentation of reality — or attempting to falsely 'heighten' the perception of how dangerous a virus is by lying.
Tue Nov 10, 2020 - 7:17 pm EST
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November 10, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — After several months of COVID-19 hysteria, Americans may have noticed repetitive types of messaging from public health officials and the mainstream media: frightening stories about the ever-increasing, surging, peaking, spiking, etc. numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths followed by public health messages supporting vaccines, masks, lockdowns, and social distancing. One should be made aware that this is an organized strategy to manipulate the actions of large groups of people; it has been researched and discussed somewhat at length in the psychology, sociology, and public health literature and is often referred to as “fear appeals” and “heightening risk appraisal.”

Here is a specific example: on April 5, 2020, during the early stages of the COVID-19 panic, the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Jerome Adams, provided this communication, which was sure to heighten America’s perception of the risk of COVID-19:

This is going to be the hardest and saddest week of most Americans’ lives[.] … This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized. It’s going to be happening all over the country.

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A news report on the communication continues:

Adams pointed out, however, that the public, along with the state and the federal government, has the power to “change the trajectory of this epidemic” as long as they follow the administration’s social distancing guidelines[.] ... “As hard as this week is going to be, there is a light at the end of the tunnel if everyone does their part for the next 30 days,” he said.

The statement was then published throughout America by most mainstream media outlets at a time when many Americans were locked into their homes with nothing else to do but read or watch the news.

The surgeon general’s prediction that the following week would be the saddest week of most Americans’ lives reportedly came true in at least one way: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 79,000 people died in America that week. According to the CDC’s data, the week the surgeon general predicted would be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment” had the highest death total in one week in America since at least 1999, New York City reportedly had almost eight times more deaths in one week than previous years, and during that week America was daily updated with frightening reports like people dying “on the streets” of New York City from COVID-19.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, or perhaps there is truly a scientific method that enables one to predict the highest weekly death count in America during a pandemic. But imagine for a moment if that prediction had not come true. Imagine, instead, that the total deaths in America for that week and the following weeks were not out of the ordinary, and there were, say, a few hundred deaths directly caused by COVID-19. Imagine, instead, that New York City, the media capital of the world, could not daily broadcast such high death counts, supposedly overloaded hospitals, or people “dying on the streets” from the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Surely, if the prediction had not come true, Americans would have been much less likely to believe public health officials and would have been much less likely to “do their part” to “flatten the curve” or participate in whatever public health guidelines were given at that time. There would not have been as much of a hurry to find a vaccine. Trillion-dollar COVID-19 funding would not have been as high a priority. In other words, the dire prediction that one of the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in America was “going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment” had to come true for the sake of the future strategies public health officials wanted to enact; for the sake of trust in the public health officials who were attempting to heighten Americans’ perception of the risk of COVID-19 in order to support and obey their political and draconian agendas, it was necessary that the public be frightened by stories about high death counts.

The surgeon general’s communication is provided as an example of a type of risk communication method known in the public health, sociology, and psychology literature as a “fear appeal.” Basically,

[f]ear appeals are persuasive messages that attempt to arouse fear by emphasizing the potential danger and harm that will befall individuals if they do not adopt the messages’ recommendations.

The problem is that, as will be elaborated in this article, some of the literature implies that “fear appeals” may include a “heightened” falsification of reality that amounts to dishonesty. One may reasonably wonder whether such dishonesty, especially at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, may have included untrue death counts.

The actions many countries take at the beginning of a public health emergency or pandemic are planned many years in advance. In the United States, a major government entity involved in planning the actions taken at the beginning, and throughout, a pandemic is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while the CDC also utilizes guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Communication during a public health emergency, including an epidemic or pandemic, is one topic apparently planned in advance. One might think communication by public health officials and government entities merely involves stating the facts during the pandemic. But that may not be the case; as stated above, communication by public health officials during a pandemic may involve an organized strategy that includes some misrepresentation of reality — or attempting to falsely “heighten” the perception of how dangerous a virus is by lying.

One location that discusses the CDC’s public health emergency response plans is the CDC Field Epidemiology Manual, which is the CDC’s “authoritative source” for health professionals during a pandemic response. The manual mentions that there is a planned and developed strategy to “frame the key messages” about how the targeted population should perceive a risk during a pandemic.

The CDC does not appear to openly discuss exactly what types of key messages risk communications experts may use during pandemics. But, as stated above, one type of “risk communication” supported by “risk communications experts” is known as “fear appeals.”

A book published just prior to the pandemic in 2019 entitled The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease, by Steven Taylor, Ph.D., a professor and clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, Canada, describes using fear appeals at the beginning of a pandemic in this way:

Fear appeals, such as those made in media announcements, and those recommended by [another scholar], can be effective in achieving persuasive goals, but their effectiveness depends on a variety of factors, including features of the message and the target audience. Important factors include the severity of the perceived threat (i.e., perceived severity and personal susceptibility) in relation to what the person believes can be done to cope with the threat (i.e., perceived efficacy). Adherence to the guidelines presented in a fear-evoking message is expected to occur if (1) the threat is perceived as severe, (2) an effective coping response is perceived to be available, and (3) the person believes they are capable of executing an effective coping response. (Page 87)

Next:

If the goal is to frighten people into adopting health behaviors, then public announcements could emphasize that infection is close at hand, looming in terms of time to impact, and that people have a high probability of infection unless precautionary measures are taken. Infections that are described as novel (i.e., having newly arisen or newly spread to humans), named after humans (e.g., Asian flu), and continuously reported in the media (i.e., the availability heuristic), will increase the perceived threat of infection. (Page 89)

Finally:

Other commentators have argued that the public should be presented with worst-case scenarios. According to [another scholar], a risk-communication consultant, the government must help the public to “visualize what a bad pandemic might be like”. (Page 80)

It is notable that most of the actions mentioned by the author were used by the CDC and the WHO to frighten most of the world. Also notable is that those who named the virus that causes COVID-19, “SARS-CoV-2,” named it as a “SARS” (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus, while the virus does not cause SARS in the vast majority of persons it infects. The name “SARS” has a fear-causing effect due to the outbreak of the first SARS virus, which was reported to be deadly.

Another example may suffice here. Believe it or not, the CDC has a “Science Team” in “the Office of the Associate Director for Communication” that “frequently undertakes an extensive scan of the expert literature” and lists “publications with particular relevance for the public health communication community” on the CDC’s online Health Communications Science Digest. One article listed provides some insight into the types of risk communications approaches taken by experts during the COVID-19 response. The article is entitled “How Fear Appeal Approaches in COVID-19 Health Communication May Be Harming the Global Community.” The lead author is described as

a social and behavioral scientist who works at the intersection of medical anthropology, public health, and infectious disease outbreak response [and] is currently responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network (GOARN) Research Focal Point for Risk Communication and Community Engagement.

It seems likely that most people would think a “social and behavioral scientist” would not be needed to provide public communications in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, the article describes the thinking of risk communications experts, including one who is the “focal point” for the WHO’s COVID-19 risk communication response.

The article states that what are known with technical language as “fear appeal approaches” have been used in the COVID-19 health communication response. The authors note that “[f]ear appeals, also called scare tactics, are a commonly used strategy to motivate behavior change.” The article discusses COVID-19 fear appeal communications that were reportedly proposed by public health officials:

[A]n example of a proposed COVID-19 campaign was to design a poster featuring an image of mass burials to persuade individuals to wash their hands[.] ... Another proposed health communication campaign among health care professionals was to create television commercials portraying a fictional hospital overloaded with patients coughing up blood, fainting in hallways, and crying in pain to persuade people to physically distance.

Public health communications experts, then, reportedly proposed dishonesty to manipulate persons into performing the actions desired by public health officials during the COVID-19 response. (The specific recommendations in the article bring to mind the national news entity in America that, during the height of the panic, broadcasted “footage of an overcrowded hospital room that was allegedly in New York City but was actually from a hospital in Italy.”)

The article implies that “fear appeal approaches” may include lying and deception to “motivate behavior change.” Misrepresenting reality to motivate behavior change is discussed in other scientific literature in technical language as “heightened risk appraisal” or “heightened risk perception”: “risk perceptions refer to people’s beliefs about their vulnerability to danger or harm.”

The assumption is that increasing people’s perceptions of risk, or their feelings of threat, will engender action. This assumption is pervasive in both common sense and scientific psychology.

But “increasing people’s perception of risk” or “heightening risk perception” could also be described as “deceptively misrepresenting the truth” about the severity of a virus. It seems likely then that “fear appeals” may involve public health officials and government entities lying to “heighten the perceived risk” of COVID-19.

A major question arises here: may one reasonably question whether dishonesty in “fear appeals” may include falsified death counts — both total death counts and COVID-19 death counts? A significant point is that at the beginning of any pandemic, there will not yet have been many deaths — this means that at the beginning of the pandemic, low death counts would likely not scare citizens into “doing their part” to “Stay home. Save lives”; get vaccinated; wear masks; stay away from one another; or whatever the newest public health pandemic guideline/craze is.

As one of the authors above states:

Important factors [in fear appeals messaging or communications] include the severity of the perceived threat (i.e., perceived severity and personal susceptibility)[.] ... If the goal is to frighten people into adopting health behaviors, then public announcements could emphasize that infection is close at hand, looming in terms of time to impact, and that people have a high probability of infection unless precautionary measures are taken.

At the beginning of a pandemic, there have not yet been many deaths; without many deaths early in a pandemic, it may be difficult to get the public to be frightened enough to perceive that the threat is severe and “looming in terms of time to impact.” In other words, if “fear appeal” messages are used at the beginning of a pandemic but death counts from the contagion have not yet been large, and if dishonesty is used, is it likely that falsified death counts may be used as a scare tactic by government public health entities with control over information?

The COVID-19 death numbers and total deaths in America are provided by the CDC and local or state departments of health. The CDC has been making COVID-19 appear more severe than even its own severity criteria suggest — which amounts to the CDC “heightening risk perception” through the use of deception. The CDC has been misleading with COVID-19 death counts, and New York City’s COVID-19 data (which were an essential component to the daily fear appeals used by the media capital of the world and public health officials to frighten Americans at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic) are questionable at best. It is reasonable to ask whether the CDC, the WHO, or local or state government entities, may have used lying in both COVID-19 deaths and total weekly deaths as a “fear appeal” to frighten the public into “doing their part” or whatever public health officials want.

Scholarly books on lying have explained that certain government bureaus or departments can easily deceive because of their control over the flow of information and the intelligence apparatus and because “large numbers of people, including educated elites, are predisposed to trust their government, whose most important job, after all, is to protect them” (pages 57–58). The COVID-19 death counts and total death counts in America are provided by government entities which have used types of deception regarding those death counts in the past. At minimum, one should at least be aware of the possibility that public health officials may use “fear appeals” with deceivingly increased COVID-19 and total death counts to frighten Americans into getting vaccinated or doing whatever public health officials want them to do.


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