Once again, we’re in unprecedented territory. According to the CDC, COVID-19 is the first global pandemic since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. While Facebook was around in 2009, it certainly wasn’t as pervasive or impactful as it is today. For that matter, neither was H1N1 when compared to COVID-19. That would make COVID-19 the first true pandemic in the age of social media.
While we’re tallying the rapidly mounting human and economic costs of the pandemic on a day-by-day basis, there is a third type of damage to consider. There will be a cognitive cost to this as well.
So let’s begin by unpacking the psychology of a pandemic. Then we’ll add the social media lens to that.
Emotional Contagion, aka “The Toilet Paper Syndrome”
Do you have toilet paper at your local store? Me, neither. Why?
The short answer is that there is no rational answer. There is no disruption in the supply chain of toilet paper. If you were inclined to stock up on something to battle COVID-19, hand sanitizer would be a much better choice. Search as you might, there is no logical reason why people should be pulling toilet paper by the palletfull out of their local Costco.
There is really only one explanation; Panic is contagious. It’s called emotional contagion. And there is an evolutionary explanation for it. We evolved as herd animals, and when our threats came from the environment around us, it made sense to panic when you saw your neighbor panicking. Those that were on the flanks of the herd acted as an early warning system for the rest. When you saw panic close to you, the odds were very good that you were about to be eaten, trampled or buried under a rockslide. We’re hardwired to live by the principle of “Monkey see, monkey do.”
Here’s the other thing about emotional contagion: It doesn’t work very well if you have to take time to think about it. Panicked responses to threats from your environment will only save your life if they happen instantly. Natural selection has ensured they bypass the slower and more rational processing loops of our brain.
But now let’s apply the social media lens to this. Before modern communication tools were invented, emotional contagion was limited by the constraints of physical proximity. Emotions could spread to a social node linked by physical proximity, but they would seldom jump across ties to another node that was separated by distance.
Then came Facebook, a platform perfectly suited to emotional contagion. Through it, emotionally charged messages can spread like wildfire regardless of where the recipients might be -- creating cascades of panic across all nodes in a social network.
Now we have cascades of panic causing -- by definition -- irrational responses. And that’s dangerous. As Wharton Management professor Sigal Barsade said in a recent podcast, “I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19.”
Why We Need to Keep Calm and Carry On
Keep calm and carry on -- the famous slogan from World War II Britain -- is more than just a platitude that looks good on a T-shirt. It’s a sound psychological strategy for survival, especially when faced with threats in a complex environment. We need to think with our whole brain -- and we can only do that when we’re not panicking.
Again, Dr. Barsade cautions us, “One of the things we also know from the research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision-making. We’re not creative. We’re not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions.”
Let’s again consider the Facebook Factor (in this case, Facebook being my proxy for all social media). Negative emotional messages driven by fear gets clicked and shared a lot on social media. Unfortunately, much of that messaging is, at best, factually incomplete -- or, at worst, a complete fabrication. A 2018 study from MIT showed that false news spreads six times faster on social media than factual information.
It gets worse. According to Pew Research, one in five Americans said that social media is their preferred source for news, surpassing newspapers. In those 18 to 29, it was the number-one source. When you consider the inherent flaws in the methodology of a voluntary questionnaire, you can bet the actual number is a lot higher.
Whom Can You Trust?
Let’s assume we can stay calm. Let’s further assume we can remain rational. In order to make rational decisions, you need factual information.
Before 2016, you could generally rely on government sources to provide trustworthy information. But that was then. Now, we live in the reality distortion field that daily spews forth fabricated fiction from the Twitter account of Donald. J. Trump, aka the President of the United States.
The intentional manipulation of the truth by those we should trust has a crippling effect on our ability to respond as a cohesive and committed community. As recently as just a week and a half ago, a poll found that Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that COVID-19 posed an imminent threat to the U.S. By logical extension, that means Republicans were half as likely to do something to stop the spread of the disease.
My Plan for the Pandemic
Obviously, we live in a world of social media. COVID-19 or not, there is no going back. And while I have no idea what will happen regarding the pandemic, I do have a pretty good guess how this will play out on social media. Our behaviors will be amplified through social media, and there will be a bell curve of those behaviors stretching from assholes to angels. We will see the best of ourselves -- and the worst -- magnified through the social media lens.
Given that, here’s what I’m planning to do. One I already mentioned. I’m going to keep calm. I’m going to do my damnedest to make calm, rational decisions based on trusted information (i.e. not from social media or the President of the United States) to protect myself, my loved ones and anyone else I can.
The other plan? I’m going to reread everything from Nassam Nicholas Taleb. This is a good time for all of us to brush up on our understanding of robustness and antifragility.