Governmental gaslighting? Communication in the corona crisis

On 7 March 2020, a group of 900 students returned to Groningen from a mass skiing vacation in Piedmont, a place declared as a high-risk area for the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, citizens were concerned, only to be met with reassuring phrases. Although China had documented cases of the coronavirus spread by asymptomatic patients some weeks earlier, a missive by the Groningen branch of the Dutch health authorities (GGD) still explicitly declared that people without symptoms cannot spread the virus. The document is unchanged to this day. Moreover, it seems to be part of a larger pattern. This kind of conduct strikes me as disturbing in two respects: On the one hand, it downplays potential threats and creates a false sense of safety. On the other hand, coming from a health authority such (false) statements help framing concerns and critical questions as overreactions. Questioning institutions and individuals who align their conduct with official guidance will make you stand out as “unduly critical” and “panicky”. No matter how many papers and news articles you’ve critically engaged with, frowned upon by adherents of what governmental institutions declare to be the status quo and quaestionis you might soon wonder whether you should question your own sanity. Beginning to wonder exactly that, I was reminded of the phenomenon called gaslighting, which is defined as psychological manipulation to the effect that people begin to question their sanity, memory, judgment etc. While this phenomenon is often recognised in abusive relationships, there are obviously variants of political gaslighting. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that gaslighting might be an important feature of crisis communication. This is not only important to recognise for restoring one’s sanity, but also in order to prepare for coping in the aftermath of the crisis.

The claim that there is no or little reason to be concerned is of course a trope in crisis communication, especially in the beginning. I vividly remember such claims around the time of Chernobyl. We are used to such claims, and perhaps most of us see them for what they are. There are good reasons to avoid overreactions or panic. However, things are different when more information becomes available. A claim, made unwaveringly against a background of contrary information, does not calm me down; rather it provides additional reasons for worrying. Why would authorities try to reassure me in the light of credible sources raising doubts? At this point, I normally begin to wonder whether the sources I consult might be limited in problematic ways. Am I overlooking something? Is there a serious debate? Of course, newly established facts will be questioned. What gave me pause in this incident was not the claim as such, but the fact that it was declared with such certainty, permitting no room for doubt. Given the large amount of uncertainties, it was the confidence itself that made the claim seem questionable and indeed as politically motivated, in the sense that the intention came across not as informing but downplaying. This assumption was confirmed by observations Naomi O’Leary and others shared on twitter, suggesting that there might have been a series of attempts to downplay the whole issue by health authorities and news outlets.

Finding confirmation (or contrary information) is an important part of assessing your own position. So finding papers and news articles that confirmed my perspective was important in many ways, especially as this crisis is still emerging. (As a side note: I’m immensely grateful for the fact that we have social media such as facebook and twitter. For all the wrongs they are known for, social media seem crucial now for sharing information, raising doubts, and not least for social bonding in times of physical distancing.) But however reassuring it was, it didn’t explain why the health authorities issued false claims. Surely, they must have known that the public wouldn’t be (completely) reassured by false claims whose refutation might just be a click away. Since I can’t read the minds of those issuing false claims, it might be better to focus on the effects of such gaslighting. Two effects strike me as particularly relevant. First, as we know from Trump’s and other famous cases, gaslighters might wish to divert attention from other facts. In the Dutch context, it might be construed as a means to divert attention from the idea of creating “herd immunity”, although, lo and behold, this is now explicitly denied. However, I’m not sure that this diversion was the underlying reason in the present case. So at this stage it might be more useful to focus on a second aspect: Arguably, a general effect of political gaslighting is to nudge people into adherence to a status quo. Panic is certainly recognised as a social problem. To cut a long story short, it will generally be seen as socially desirable to maintain calm (rather than panic). If you manage to portray critics as creating panic, you effectively depict them as having undesirable traits. If this is correct, people might be expected to silence their critical tendencies in order to appear socially desirable. That’s (political) coolness, in a nutshell.

Apart from the fact that making false claims is morally dubious and might incentivise counterproductive forms of conduct, the effects of such governmental gaslighting strike me immensely problematic for two further reasons. First, they generally polarise and thus might even reinforce nationalist tendencies, at least when the supposed status quo is construed as the achievement of a particular country. In the Netherlands, some crisis experts even went as far as claiming that Italy’s strategy of a lockdown was “incredibly stupid”, since it would damage the econony, while the Dutch way was the “only right one”. While I hope that this assessment remains an outlier, there is a second reason that, in my view, renders such gaslighting particularly pernicious: the creation of political myths that serve to polarise after the crisis. Let me explain.

In the last few days, I was often reminded of stories about the time after WW II, after the revolutions of 1989 and after the financial crisis of 2008. Of course, the corona crisis is vastly different in many respects. But what crises of such scale have in common is that they allow for fundamentally different ideas about how to go on afterwards. The fact that large parts of our social and economical customs break down is both devastating and ground for reconsiderations. Do you remember Occupy Wall Street, to pick just one example? It’s no exaggeration to say that this movement has been portrayed by and large as a failure. Whatever the merits or downsides of the movement, such portrayal has been prepared long before. Not intentionally, of course. But by depicting criticism of neoliberalism as a failure, a meme that is still with us, the grounds were prepared to portray countermovents as countering a supposedly desirable status quo.  – I am reminded of this and other stories whenever I listen to all these wonderful ideas about how the corona crisis might also inspire new forms of interaction, forms that are more in line with general political goals such as reacting to the climate crisis. Be they about new forms of online teaching, or larger ideas about environmental or economical questions. My worry is that downplaying the impact of the corona crisis today will serve as a force to retain a status quo from which to counter and suppress important movements after the crisis.

What does this mean for crisis communication? Of course, not every attempt to avoid panic is a form of gaslighting. But I generally think that governmental institutions might underestimate their audience. Here is a positive counter-example: The virologist Christian Drosten currently runs a regular podcast for the public (in German). In one episode, he openly explained how reading one single paper (by a historian on the Spanish Flu) made him change his mind about recommending the closure of schools. What impressed me was the general public response. In a moment of crisis, an expert calmly communicates the fragility and uncertainty in establishing scientific facts and policies. Of course, I’m relying largely on anecdata, but my impression was that this attitude was received as rather reassuring. This in stark contrast to the archetypical assertion that everything is under control, which often prompts worry or cynicism.

I stop here. These are just a few confused thoughts and associations that struck me while trying to come to terms with the new situation that is now affecting us in a number of very different ways. Let me end by saying that I wish you all the best.

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