May 15, 2020

The Long-awaited Death of Our Communication Naiveté. Again

The Covid-19 crisis has changed the way we communicate with each other.

There is a continuing struggle between my humble hope and deepening doubts about our ability to learn from the growing information disorder amid the pandemic crisis. Surely, one important lesson to study in depth among many others is related to communication patterns, to provide more convincing evidence about how information from the virtual environment transforms into real actions in the physical world. The same old truth, right? Ironically, we have to rediscover its value during the crisis, whose origin, progress and consequences have corrosive effects on the essence of truth.

The bewitchingly ugly beauty of this crisis opens through the multidimensional role of communication played by various—sometimes malicious or even hostile—actors to shape our perceptions about the pandemic. As it is mostly one-way traffic and its effects are largely irreversible, we still have no clear idea how to make people unlearn those consumed semi-truths, falsehoods or designed lies that have been produced and spread on an industrial scale not just by means of rumours on social media but also thanks to certain politicians and useful idiots, both locally and globally.

The first dimension of pandemic communication is, of course, internationally political: all the notifications and official messages between countries, the WHO, the EU and other organisations, and assorted political leaders. Slow in reacting, brave in implicating, fast in tweeting. Some of this has converted into suspicions and acquisitions, and contributed to mistrust and misinformation and then to further unfortunate misunderstandings. Put simply, real harm has been done with no cruel intent behind it. It happens, especially during a crisis fuelled with widespread panic and managed by surprisingly inexperienced politicians who tend to cultivate distrust in science-based evidence and evidence-based policies by replacing them with slogans and policy-based evidence. The pioneering denial of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a sad example of how scientific communication is being politicised with destructive consequences.

The second dimension is closely interlinked with the first as it addresses the geopolitics of those actors who desperately seek opportunities to satisfy their reputational ambitions at any cost. Circumstances during the pandemic crisis have provided plenty of chances to realise deliberately planned disinformation campaigns against some countries and in favour of others. While the Kremlin competes with Beijing for a positive image in Serbia, it is trying to undermine solidarity within the EU and disseminate anti-NATO narratives. These opportunistic yet entirely intentional actions are now being scrupulously documented, but their value might be overestimated. Describing and admiring the problem of malicious and hostile disinformation does not resolve it, because virtual debunking does not re-convince real people as attribution of that information does not stimulate any swift correct response. Since there is still neither general agreement on nor a working format for delivering punitive follow-ups, disinformation campaigns will follow any crisis in the future as they have done throughout history. Even (or perhaps particularly) during the pandemic, we cannot count on the inexistent conscience of those malicious actors. We have to relearn how to coexist with them by becoming more immune and resilient.

This brings us to the third dimension of pandemic communication: the personal. Again, this relates to the previous one because disinformation resonates not just on a geopolitical level but also as a masterly crafted influence campaign. It is intended to form opinions, shape perceptions and—ideally—result in some action, intending to change behaviour in the short term and influence behavioural patterns in the long term. This dimension is uniquely significant since the distortion of truth at this level is practically harmful to those people who tend to consume information without checking its credibility and therefore often fall into the trap of reinforcing their own pre-existing misbeliefs or doubting official information. The motley variety of falsehoods can range from blunt propaganda narratives to numerous conspiracy theories from which everyone can choose what they consider the most trustworthy story, be it 5G-related nonsense, Covid-19 as an American or Chinese bioweapon, or magic pills that kill the virus. Information saturation and crisis-created chaos just predispose a situation in which false information can in fact dictate behaviour by triggering some of our cognitive biases. As a result, it might support, for example, the anti-vaccination movement or provoke quarantine measures and restrictions being ignored, because a truly compelling narrative provides a rationale for action and fosters an illusion of inevitability. In any case, such delusions and misbehaviour can be potentially dangerous not just for an individual but also for other people.

This is a good point to address the other dimension, which is societal. The pandemic crisis has undoubtedly influenced how we communicate with each other. The deep effects remain to be seen and studied, but the anticipated changes are not necessarily positive. This is not just about missing the emotions of interpersonal communication or about tiresome and exhausting conference-zooming; it is also about government communication to and with its citizens who supposedly believed (or not) and followed (or not) the restrictive (or voluntarily) measures during lockdown. When the signals were weak or unclear, citizens took the liberty of interpreting the messages in their own way, judging them by their own standards and then, obviously, reaching the most convenient conclusions. There should be at least some healthy doubt about official statements suggesting that an opinion poll can provide any solid feedback on the government’s actions. The best it can give is just a fraction of the general mood. A good dose of scepticism is a helpful tool for communications experts, since they know that what people say, what they do and what they say they do are three completely different things.

That, in a nutshell, is how unprofessionally mistargeted and non-feedbacked communication can be dangerously misleading and result in unenforceable legal restrictions. Even though these groups are apparently a minority, it would be a strategic mistake to underestimate the viral spread of narratives of such civic resistance. Studies on non-violent protests suggest that the active engagement of just 3.5% of the total population is usually enough to cause a noticeable shift in practice and major changes in policy. Not to mention the speed and penetrative power of modern communications technologies; there is a growing database of evidence on the polarising and radicalising effects of social media. Even small groups nowadays have highly effective tools to be heard, but they might be just under the radar of government communicators. A deeper look into the social media groups of some Russian-speakers in the Baltics can be both thought-provokingly insightful and scarily illuminating. As the pandemic crisis has exposed gaps and weaknesses in our communication, governments should not hope for societal inertia and abandon the presumption of a fragile consensus among the silent majority.

While anticipating changes in every dimension of communication, we should relearn the already known bases and proven functionality patterns. It will be a big, but interesting, challenge to analyse the lessons from the pandemic crisis and then begin to operationalise that valuable experience, rethink different scenarios and test their feasibility, redesign our response plans and control their reliability. But most importantly—because communication is not just multidimensional but also multidisciplinary—to conduct regular close-to-real-life exercises to train the whole communications ecosystem of policymakers, decision-makers, first responders, communicators, community leaders and active citizens. In that way, in the next crisis, we will be less naïve and more prepared, at least in terms of communication.

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