Ebola is everywhere—on television, on the radio, in newspapers, and across the Internet. If you have consumed even a drop of the voluminous virus coverage in the last few weeks, you probably know that this is a real and terrible health crisis in Africa, but not quite a crisis in the United States, where one person has died from the virus.
But does it ever seem like everybody in America is freaking out about Ebola, except for you? The thrust of responsible mainstream coverage, particularly on the Internet, cable news, and Sunday morning talk shows (not this stuff), has focused on the fact that too many Americans are freaking out, and they ought to stop. The front page of CNN.com today is a textbook example:
The article lists several anecdotes of Ebola fear—including a Dallas college rejecting a Nigerian applicant and a woman who vomited in a Pentagon parking lot and was temporarily quarantined—while advising Americans to keep calm and carry on.
What's wrong with news articles and cable-news segments that caution against Ebola hysteria by telling the truth? Two things: First, the non-stop harping about people overreacting to Ebola is turning into another form of overreaction. Second, the coverage of Americans freaking out about the disease, might, ironically, make widespread panic more likely.
For the last two weeks, the American Ebola panic has been relentlessly overstated. When Gallup asked Americans if they were worried about contracting the Ebola virus, just 23 percent said yes in a October 11-12 poll, days after Thomas Duncan was the first person to die in America from the disease. That was up just one percentage point (well within the margin of error) from a similar survey administered one week earlier. Just 16 percent told Gallup that they actually thought someone in their family would likely get the virus, up just two percentage points from a week earlier.
One in six people thinking they're about to die from Ebola is a serious matter. But you can get about approximately 20 percent of Americans to say all sorts of crazy things in anonymous polls. According to last year's Harris Interactive survey on spirituality, more than 40 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, 36 percent believe in UFOs, and 26 percent believe in witches. It seems safe to say that the United States does don't suffer from an epidemic of magical evil-doers, but until last week, Americans were far more likely to believe in witches than to worry about contracting Ebola.
Second, news organizations that focus on myth-busting are doing good work by repeating the truth about Ebola. But to bust the myths, they are also repeating the falsehoods about Ebola and possibly normalizing panic by reminding viewers, again and again, that America is swept up in fear.
Media organizations "assume that the best way to counter misinformation is to confront the myths with facts, allowing people to learn what is correct," wrote University of Southern California psychologist Norbert Schwarz. "This strategy necessarily repeats the myths that it wants to correct, thus further increasing their subsequent familiarity,” which makes people more likely to believe that the myths have a basis in reality.
A 2005 study by Schwarz and others exposed old and young adults to myths like “Shark cartilage is good for your arthritis,” which were correctly labeled as false. All participants could identify the myths immediately after the test. But three days later, the gauntlet of warnings had backfired, particularly for older adults, many of whom suddenly associated shark cartilage with arthritis relief. "Because explicit memory declines faster with age than implicit memory,” Schwarz wrote, "older adults could not recall whether the statement was originally marked as true or false but still experienced its content as highly familiar, leading them to accept it as true.”
Another study found that when participants heard repeated phrases like “the wax used to line Cup-o-Noodles cups has been shown to cause cancer in rats,” they were more likely to be attribute it to a respected source like Consumer Reports than to a less-respected source like National Enquirer, even if the original phrases were accurately labeled.
This is not a comprehensive case against myth-busting. The truth needs advocates. But the danger of repeating myths, even when honestly trying to bust them, is that repetition has a way of turning misinformation into information. Just as both Gallup and the Pew Research Center were reporting that Americans weren't too afraid of Ebola, the Washington Post reported that its own poll revealed a super-majority of the country is "concerned" about the "possibility" of the virus becoming widespread. Good news organizations are telling Americans the truth about Ebola while also inviting them to see panic as normal and mainstream. If containment can fight the virus, maybe similar discretion could be used to fight the panic.