It's much easier to be worked up in a frenzied panic than it is to calm down and think clearly. Amidst all the fear and panic for Ebola, we sometimes can't find out all the facts about a situation.

The fact of the matter is that fear tactics in marketing prove effective in being more persuasive and making consumers take action. Simply put, people respond based on fear. Although the media may benefit from fear mongering, the public bears the brunt of the damage these messages do to our minds.

Media Sensationalism and Empty Fears

Fear tactics are, indeed, effective in getting a message across. But according to a study published in Psychology & Marketing, fear appeal and scare tactics often illicit “maladaptive responses such as chronic heightened anxiety." Translation: scary social media posts are misleading and making you worry more than you should.

Let's pick apart the following article from BBC News that went online on October 8, 2014, the beginning of the Ebola panic. Scrolling through your Facebook feed, the following headline catches your eye:

Why Ebola is so dangerous

Reading this, a train wreck of thoughts pile up:

  • Ebola? Wasn't that some killer disease from the seventies that wiped out people in the Congo?
  • Ebola? That's what the bad guy in Osmosis Jones used as a measure of how incredibly deadly he is.

The headline has caught your attention and you're clicking through—success on BBC News' end. BBC News does an amazing job informing the masses on what Ebola is and why the outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone needs to be globally addressed. But that's only if you intensely read this massive wall of text.

This particular piece uses lots of high-quality pictures and videos to entertain readers.

The first picture is of healthcare workers suited up in hazmat suits. The image triggers a strong fear of contamination. The healthcare workers helping those in Africa have to wear a whole-body suit to protect themselves. Scrolling on, the following catches the reader's attention:

  • A video with “some graphic images" and a freeze frame of what looks like a healthcare worker hovering over a body
  • A cartoon graphic of phagocytosis showing how viruses infects cells
  • Photos of daily life in West Africa
  • Infographics

The infographics are the most misleading. In a nutshell, these maps, colors, and numbers are supposed to give you an idea of the seriousness of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. At first glance, the maps show that Sierra Leone, Liberia, and half of Guinea are basically doomed. The color red—which is used heavily through the keys of the maps—triggers feelings of risk and endangerment. Although Ebola is dangerous, using a shade of red to represent one infected person in a region spanning hundreds of miles is a tad excessive. It just adds to the panic of someone who is too worked up to read the details.

The data is accurate, but the visual display can be unsettling if readers don't take time to understand exactly what they're looking at it. In your state of panic, you've forgotten that this is a map of Africa. If you live in sunny Southern California, an urban area 6,000 miles away from the outbreak, there's whole ocean between you and West Africa. But you're panicking and most of you're common logic has gone out the window—you're just trying to survive a seemingly dangerous situation.

Picking and Choosing What We Consume Online

Every editor knows that it's incredibly hard to keep a reader's attention, so they try to make articles as engaging and easily consumable as possible. There isn't time to research when a leading news source is trying to warn me about a deadly disease that could be surging through my veins because during my three-hour layover in Juneau, Alaska, I casually got a drink with a man returning from a business trip in Gueckedou, Guinea. I could be infected! I could die! I need answers NOW. But with my body potentially degenerating as I sit here, I don't have time to thoroughly read. What do I do? Scroll furiously up and down the page, open other articles, and absorb as much information as quickly as possible. This doesn't really amount to much because I'm fixated on terrifying headlines, triggering images, and infographics that show how the outbreak is, indeed, the worst the world has seen.

A lot of scary and heartbreaking stuff. And that's all I've chosen to consume in my panicked state. If I had read the article thoroughly, I would understand that, yes, West Africa is in a crisis, but it's highly unlikely for me to be infected. And even if I did get infected, I can be cured. Rather than focusing on how I can save myself from a disease I most definitely won't contract, I should concern myself with how I can help these people get the resources they need.

Should I be Panicking about Ebola?

This current meme circulating the web can answer that question—you are more likely to be married to Kim Kardashian than die from Ebola. If you know who Kim Kardashian is and aren't married to her, we can assure you that you are safe, and do not need to worry about Ebola. As you can see from the BBC News piece, the media feeds you a lot of scary content to get you worked up. Do you need to believe everything you read? No. Do you need to panic? No. Do you blame media? You can't really.

Although all the scary things in the world that stress people out can't be magically erased, people can definitely minimize variables, such as trending news, that trigger and aggravate fears. Keep in mind what the media does to sell a story. You can continue to consume bits and pieces, building up fears on a foundation of misconstrued information, or you can take a deep breath, and try to set the facts straight.

First Off, Remove All the Bad Media and Hype from Your Life

The most important and yet most difficult step to take is escaping the media and social onslaught. Until everything calms down, which it will, turn off the news. If your social media feeds are being inundated, take a break for a while.

Instead, focus on positive news. There are plenty of websites dedicated to removing the media hype and sensationalism. Here are the facts about the 2014 Ebola outbreak:

  • Ebola can only be contracted through the exchange of bodily fluids. And when we say bodily, that means blood and saliva, not water. Also know that Ebola is not an airborne virus, so breathe easy.
  • Medicine for Ebola exists. Although Ebola medications are currently being reviewed by the FDA, some have been administered to patients due to the emergency.
  • As of October 21, nine people who have contracted Ebola outside of West Africa have fully recovered, and only four have died.

Next, Put Risk into Perspective

Chances are, you're reading this off of your new iPhone 6 as you wait in line at Starbucks for your Pumpkin Spice Latte. Remind yourself of the following two things:

  1. You have access to a hospital, experts in medicine, electricity, running water, and a ton of other things we take for granted daily.
  2. Dr. Lee Norman, a Chief Medical Officer at the University of Kansas Hospital and a Homeland Security bio threat advisor, affirms that “if a person hasn't traveled to these regions in West Africa, or come in contact with someone who was there and got ill, then the likelihood of catching or being exposed to Ebola is about 0."

So I'm not Going to Die from Ebola?

No, you won't. Modern medicine is doing wonders. So far, four of the eight infected Americans have recovered, three are in treatment, and only one has passed. But you should be careful of what the media tries to feed you. Once you've surrounded yourself with positive media, and looked at all the facts, a wave of relief should wash over you.

Date of original publication: .

Updated on October 23, 2015.


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