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  • Pauline Hoffmann

What scares you makes you stronger...(Wait, that doesn't sound right.)


I've been thinking about fear messaging in relation to disinformation quite a bit lately. Fear messaging is certainly not new. We've seen fear campaigns throughout history. Historic witch hunts come to mind. In fact, fear messaging was the topic of my podcast this week.

Fear messaging is any message in any medium (radio, TV, social media, print, etc.) that elicits a fear reaction in the recipient. It’s designed to do that. It wants you to be afraid enough that you take the proscribed action in the message. For example, Covid is deadly and if you don’t get the vaccine you will die.

That’s terrifying. Yes, we all know we will die – that's life. But we would rather it happen later than sooner and perhaps not by a horrific virus. That said, is there truth to the fear message? Yes. It is quite possible that if you contract Covid and you are not vaccinated, you will die. You may not, but the odds may be against you.

We often see fear messaging in health-related messages but health is hardly the only thing to make us fearful. Mid-term elections are coming up in the U.S. so we see all kinds of fear messaging in political campaigns. "If you don’t vote for X candidate, Medicare will no longer exist and our grandparents will die a slow death in alleys while their kidneys are harvested." That’s also terrifying! I don’t want my grandmother to die alone and she needs her kidneys for her renal health!

That example seems farfetched but some of the messaging I see isn’t that far off. It is designed to prey on your fears and those crafting the messages do a great deal of research to know exactly which buttons to push. Part of me is appalled by the use of research in such an evil way but another part of me is actually impressed that it is at least being done. That said, not all fear messaging is intended to be evil (or intended to be disinformation). Much of it is actually designed to help.

Do you remember the "This is your brain on drugs" public service announcement by the Ad Council? That's an example of fear messaging. And it's an example of fear messaging done very well. It hit the sweet spot in fear messaging - eliciting a medium level of fear (there are also, as you might guess, low and high fear levels). It wasn't too tame by, for example, making people think of breakfast and wanting to add a side of bacon, and it wasn't too harsh causing people to turn away and not get the message at all. It was just right.

Fear messaging generally contains information about some harm that may befall the recipient if that person takes no action and includes a suggested action to take to avoid and/or prevent the harm.

If you don’t perceive the risk to be great, for example, you may not take any action. When Covid first arrived on the scene, it was believed that those who were older than 65 or those with co-morbidities or pre-existing conditions were at greater risk and that young, healthy people had nothing to worry about. There was no harm to young people so no action needed to be taken by them. Let’s cast aside transmission for a moment because remember that young people could still carry the virus and kill grandma.

(It just occurred to me that this is the second time I've harmed grandma in this newsletter. Guess it's not a good day for grandmas at Data Doyenne.)

It's also important to know and understand what people are afraid of in order to craft messaging to scare the crap out of them. Many people are afraid of change in one form or another. They are afraid of failure and loss. They are afraid of losing control. They are afraid of the unknown. That's why some of these messages resonate so well. They play on our fears.

Let's return to Covid. When more was known about Covid and it became clear that those under 65 who are overweight might be at higher risk of contracting Covid and perhaps dying, it scared me! I am over 50 and overweight! I saw that some harm might befall me so I took the suggested actions. I wore my mask (and still do sometimes) to protect myself and others. I isolated as much as was practical. I jumped into a lifestyle change to lose weight. Then I fell off that wagon and stress ate potato chips and ice cream (not together, that's gross). I think you get the point.

It also matters how we value the opinions of others (theory of reasoned action). We certainly have our own beliefs but do we also take into account the beliefs of those in our "circles?" Do we care what our parents think or our friends or coworkers or doctors? If so, that may play a role in whether or not we intend to choose a particular behavior.

So, how do you evaluate fear messages? I would argue that you should treat them as you would any other message. Remember my newsletter last week when I noted how to evaluate messages? It's important enough to repeat (from The University of California Berkeley Library):

  • Authority: Who is the author? Is it someone you can trust?

  • Purpose: Who is the intended audience for the piece? Why was it created?

  • Publication and format: Where was it published? On social media? On a personal blog? In the newspaper?

  • Relevance: Is it relevant to the topic? What is the scope?

  • Date of publication: There are certainly seminal works that all researchers still reference, but, generally, the more recent, the better.

  • Documentation: Are sources cited? Who did they cite?

We are bombarded with so much information every day it can be difficult to sift through the clutter to find what's real and what's relevant for each of us. It would be worth it, though, to take the steps outlined above and do your own due diligence. You can also always just ask me to help. It's what I do.

I hope you found this information helpful. I also hope that grandmothers (and others) out there stay safe!

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