For months now the world has been subjected to a relentless “infodemic” of COVID-19 media coverage, some of it sensationalistic fearmongering. Conflicting information is rampant, and the real threat of fake news to global health has prompted governments and health authorities to take action to shield the public from harmful misinformation.
According to PEW Research, 48% of Americans report seeing made-up COVID-19 news. The global caldron of hysteria is continually stirred by the fact-free opinion forums of social media, and COVID-19 has been front page news since January. It has become the dominant global topic of conversation.
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic post-mortem will continue for years, and any root-cause analysis will have to examine the role played by media and fake news.
The WHO characterizes the current infodemic as a “major challenge to outbreak response”. It’s April 15th COVID-19 Situation Report describes the problem “An infodemic is an over-abundance of information, some accurate and some not that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. It poses a serious problem for public health since people need this guidance to know what actions to take to protect themselves and others, and help mitigate the impact of a disease… exacerbated by the global scale of the emergency, and propagated by the interconnected way that information is disseminated and consumed through social media platforms and other channels.”
Social media are relatively new in the three hundred-thousand-year history of homo sapiens, and little understood by those outside Silicon Valley. They have been cleverly engineered to hack our first-generation Australopithecus software. Employing highly effective gaming-industry reward methodologies, Facebook created a closed-loop Dopamine-driven feedback system which encourages emotive discussion (as opposed to analysis). A King University article “The Psychology of Social Media” explains “The ventral tegmental area (VTA) is one of the primary parts responsible for determining the rewards system in people’s bodies. When social media users receive positive feedback (likes), their brains fire off dopamine receptors, which is facilitated in part by the VTA.” Since “Likes” are generated by agreement, analytical discussion is discouraged. Thanks largely to Hollywood and Gerome’s realistic “Pollice Verso”, the downward thumb is now widely misinterpreted as a gesture of disapproval, and is not rewarded by Mr. Zuckerberg. The Facebook junkie with the most “Likes” gets the biggest Dopamine fix. People in groups tend to like people who are most like themselves, which usually means those with similar opinions.
People also tend to infer that a familiar opinion is a prevalent one, even when its familiarity derives solely from the repeated expression of one group member. “A repetitive voice can sound like a chorus” (Kimberlee Weaver).
The term “Groupthink” was coined by psychologist Irving L. Janis in his 1972 book “Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes”. Janis defines “Groupthink” as “a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups.”
Janis identified eight different “symptoms” that indicate groupthink:
- Illusions of invulnerability
- Unquestioned beliefs
- Illusions of unanimity
- Direct pressure to conform
According to Cleveland Clinic partner Verywell Mind, “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a group forms a quick opinion that matches the group consensus, rather than critically evaluating the information. Mass hysteria can be seen as an extreme example of groupthink. The group members feed off each other’s emotional reactions, causing the panic to escalate. The suppression of individual opinions and creative thought can lead to poor decision-making and inefficient problem-solving.”
It is thought that groupthink increases as a function of group cohesion.
Also known as “epidemic hysteria”, mass hysteria has numerous historical examples. Johns Hopkins defines it as “a constellation of symptoms suggestive of organic illness, but without an identifiable cause, that occurs between two or more people who share beliefs related to those symptoms.” Mass hysteria can cause panic, or in some cases, manifest physical symptoms which have no medical basis.
The lack of critical reasoning on social media, fed by obsessive news coverage, fake or otherwise, has contributed greatly to “coronasteria”. Obsession leads to anxiety. Conflicting information creates uncertainty. Uncertainty creates fear. Fear disconnects the reasoning neocortex and engages our reptilian brain; the “fight or flight” survival response to danger. Since we use the neocortex for analytical reasoning, fear is bad when we are trying to think our way out of a global crisis.
To what extent has groupthink influenced pandemic management and contributed to poor decision making? Good thesis topic.
President Trump might actually benefit from a little groupthink. Another good thesis topic.
Fact is, the broad lack of consensus globally regarding so many aspects of COVID-19 response policy suggests that not everyone has got it right. As the dust settles on a post-apocalyptic global bankruptcy sale, world leaders may have some explaining to do.