EP 2: COVID19 & INTERNATIONAL POLITICS
By Paul Poast, Mar 24 2020 09:44AM
Paul Poast Podcast
Episode 2 Recorded 13MAR20
Welcome to the Paul Poast Podcast in which he discusses a variety of national security topics.
Professor Poast is an Assistant Director of the Chicago Project on Security & Threats (CPOST) and the author of three books, The Economics of War, Organizing Democracy, and Arguing About Alliances.
In this second episode, interviewed by Peter Wolf, a CPOST researcher, Paul discusses the long-term implications of the COVID-19 virus and how it could change global power relations.
You can follow him on @ProfPaulPoast.
Interviewer: Recently you did a thread about the coronavirus which you link to other people's work. It was very informative. I noticed you came to four conclusions at the end of this thread. The first one was, we've seen this before. The second one was, governments must treat the pandemic as a security issue in order to respond adequately. Number three was, government might use the security framing for extreme measures. Number four was that it could change the global power relations.
Those are some big takeaways. I thought we might be able to work through those. Just number one, we've seen this before. There's been a lot of talk about the Spanish Flu recently. What are some of your thoughts on this as an IR scholar?
Prof. Poast: Absolutely. It's interesting. Actually one of my lectures in intro to IR, we talk about what's called existential risk. These are Institutes like the future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University being an example, Future of Life Institute at MIT. These are places that think about risks to humanity, potential type of events that could substantially could kill, to be blunt, kill a substantial number of people in the world and make it possible that civilization, as it's currently structured, couldn't go on. That's what these Institute's study about. We talk about it in the course, but we talk about these and these run from anything, from a major nuclear war to asteroids, that's one other thing they look at.
One of these also thinks a lot about artificial intelligence. There's a lot of good too, but there can be a lot of dangers to it, but something that all these institutes do think about is biological threats, and the possibility of something like this happening because of the fact that we've seen this before. We've seen it on still global scale but not at the say massive death scale that other plagues, with say, SARS, H1N1 with the bird flu strain. If you go back, of course, the quintessential modern example of a biological event, if you will, of a virus that caused massive deaths, is, of course, the Spanish Flu of 1918. That one on the order of I can't remember the exact number, but they may be 30 million to 50 million.
I think [crosstalk] about 50 million people were killed by this. That's one way in which we've seen this before. We've seen it at a more limited scale, we've seen it at a massive scale with the Spanish flu. Of course, you could go even further back to bubonic plague and see this. That's why this is an event that those type of institutes think about this, because it is very real and it has the potential that if government and societies don't respond properly to it, you can lead to wide-scale massive death and enhance massive disruptions to an economy, to a society.
That was one way in which I said that we've seen this before, both in terms of an event on the scale the Spanish flu, but even an event that's not quite at that scale, such as SARS or H1N1, or at least the moderate H1N1 because technically the Spanish Flu it was a strain of that. At least that's my understanding. I should add, I am not an epidemiologist, I do not know all these details, but that's my understanding of it.
Having said that, another thing that is important when thinking about that we've been here before is, if people want to draw a parallel to something like the Spanish flu, well, it's important to keep in mind, and you don't have to be an epidemiologist to know this, but it's important to keep in mind that medicine has advanced dramatically since then. Not only has medicine advanced dramatically since then, but the relationship of the government to the medical sector has advanced a lot since then. Prior in the 19 teens, there was not a National Institutes of Health. There was not a center for disease control in the United States. These entities didn't exist, just like how other aspects of the way the government has developed social welfare type of institutions didn't exist. That's one big thing that makes it different from today versus back then. Indeed, these things were created in part due to concerns about widespread epidemics or potential global pandemics.
That's what I meant by saying, we've seen these things before. This is not the first time that we've ever faced a global pandemic. They've been at different scales. They've had different levels of lethality, but we've definitely seen that before. That's what I meant by that point.
Interviewer: Related to that, you mentioned the Mongols. We could go all the way back there. There seems to be, on top of the Mongols but also the Conquistadors and perhaps even the timing of the Spanish Flu in this, there seems to be a relation between globalization and pandemics, especially when globalization's under perhaps a time of strain. What are your thoughts on that?
Prof. Poast: Globalization is absolutely critical to the development of a pandemic. The concept of a pandemic, even if you look at something like the bubonic plague itself, and this is something that I always teach my students about when we would talk about globalization. As I say, "Look, the bubonic plague was in many ways a product of, at that time, globalization." It developed, it went along the trade routes, the Silk Route, Silk Road as people would refer to it, and that's what enabled it to not just impact Europe but also impact China. It was truly a global the Eurasian continent experienced the entire thing and it went along these trade routes. Same thing with the Spanish flu.
Of course, if the Spanish flu is a misnomer, it didn't start in Spain, but the major reason why it spread and it became a global pandemic, in this case, it wasn't so much due to trade routes but it was largely due to something that relates very much to my own research, which is, it was due to mobilization of soldiers and troops because of World War I.
That's actually something else- I recently just tweeted about this- that was actually something else that led to in some countries, the Spanish Flu being so deadly was, for example, in the UK, the government made decisions to not put in place certain types of quarantine measures because they thought that that would hurt the war effort. It was like, "No, we need to have people in the factories." You might have a health official that's saying, or health experts saying, "Well, we really should shut this down." They're like, "No, we need to continue the war effort." That was something that actually contributed to it.
Going back to the Globalization, it truly was this like, massive movement of people, in this case because of war, that carried that virus all over the globe. You go to today, whether it was with SARS or with the current Coronavirus, exact same thing. We see it with people this is why airplanes people or airlines were stopping flights.This is part of the motivation, for now, people disagree or agree with whether it was wise to ban travel coming in from Europe, and even if you agree that that might be a prudent policy, you could still think that the way in which it was carried out was not the best idea. The notion behind that is this idea that look, this virus is spreading globally because of globalization, because of travel, and hence we should restrain that. It's very much that the more that the world is interconnected, the more that there is the prospects for this type of event to happen.
Interviewer: Related to that, something you brought up earlier was that how the role of government has changed with relation to both medicine and society, which takes us into that second point, a conclusion of yours, which is the governments have to treat this pandemic as a security issue in order to respond adequately. You mentioned, they set up health services during World War I, there was various political calculations made. Before we jump into that, I wanted to ask you to tell us a little about this concept of securitization.
Prof. Poast: Yes. Securitization, it's associated with what they call the Copenhagen School of International Security. The idea behind it is the idea that rhetoric matters. That how you describe something can affect how people then treat something. The idea is that something becomes a security issue if you describe it as a security issue. That can even mean things that we don't automatically think of as security issue. Things that we would naturally think of as security issue would be, there's troops coming to our border. That looks like a security issue. Are drugs a security issue? Well, they become a security issue if you refer to it as the war on drugs. That's the epitome of what we mean by securitization, is when you say the war on something, you now phrase it as a security issue.
Well, this is very much related to pandemics because if you treat disease, the spread of disease, public health issues, you can treat that as a security issue or you can say it's not a security issue. Now, why does that matter? Well, the reason why it matters is because if you view it as, and maybe purely is not the right word or merely is the right word, but if you view it merely as a public health issue, then there's a certain set of people who are going to address that, and that also means there's going to be a certain set of resources that are going to be allocated to it.
A lot of times, especially in the modern world, if you refer to something as a security issue, this is to our very existence, our very livelihoods, our very standing as a nation, then that leads to a whole different set of people who become involved with it, as well as different resources that go to it. So whether you choose to have pandemics, and the prevention of pandemics as being under the portfolio of the National Security Council, if you choose to, then that means you're making that a security issue, if you're choosing not to then you're not viewing it as a security issue.
Securitization doesn't necessarily have to have a negative connotation to it. It doesn't have to be you're making something into a security issue that wasn't a security issue, and it doesn't need to be a security issue. It could also be you're making something into a security issue for the purpose of actually making sure that there's adequate resources being put towards it, and ensuring that your public views it in the proper way as a true threat.
Interviewer: As you said, that's really changed, that really seemed to have come to the fore in World War I. There's a little bit of a precedent to that, you have sanitary conferences beginning in 1851, and happening after that. You tweeted a great quote that mentioned both those conferences in our general Marshall's concerns for germs, especially cleaning up Europe, quite literally in World War II. There's a lot of political versus public health consideration, and I know that President Trump's press conference the other evening, you said that he seems to be making political considerations, putting them at odds, perhaps with public health considerations. What are some more examples about that, did you want to talk more about that thing?
Prof. Poast: This is something else that very much relates back to that notion of securitization, because on the one hand, as I said, securitization doesn't necessarily have to mean a negative thing. It could be that look, I think--
Interviewer: War on poverty.
Prof. Poast: Yes, war on poverty. The war on poverty could be that look, "We think poverty is bad, we're going to try to eliminate it." By declaring it a war, it makes it more of a high priority, makes clear it's a priority. In the case of President Trump, where people have been concerned is that recent case of the Coronavirus, and really in the case of disease prevention in general, that has not been the case. The Trump administration has not made it a security issue. They've made the border, a security issue, they've made immigration a security issue. The Trump administration very much engages in securitization, but they've chosen to frame illegal immigration as a security issue, and as a consequence, they've chosen not to frame things like disease prevention and response to epidemics or pandemics as a security issue, up until about now.
In fact, I think that at the moment that we're conducting this interview, I believe President Trump is having a press conference where he's likely going to declare this as an emergency. Hence, at that point, now bringing it more into the realm of being truly a security issue, and then of course, what comes with it are different resources that will be allocated to it. Prior to now, again, that hasn't been the choice. In fact if anything, he's tried to downplay that. Trying to say, "Well, no, this is not a big concern." The reason why is because the fear is that we may not be able to do anything about it. I think that that's been a big reason why politics, sometimes political considerations come in is in many ways it's very analogous, and I drew this parallel on Twitter, is very analogous to what the British government did during World War I, and is like, "Look, yes, there is this flu going around, and people are dying from this, but the war effort is too great. That is our bigger political priority, and so we're going to prioritize that."
In the case of President Trump, it may not be something as noble as a war effort, it might be his own reelection coming up, and he doesn't want people to be worried about it. Having said that, I think the issue has pressed itself in such a way that he can't avoid it anymore, and so that's why you see the press conference the other night, now he's having, excuse me, the address of the nation the other night, press conference today, it's becoming much more clear that he has to address this, and actually treat it as a threat, as a security issue.
Interviewer: Yes, again, these transitions right into your third conclusion, which is governments, you didn't use the word exploiting, but I'm going to use the word exploiting security framing for extreme measures. We saw something you mentioned with war effort, perhaps. China was very quick to use the military in addressing this. I don't believe Korea has done that, and Italy I don't think it's done that, seems in democracies that hasn't been so much the thing. Differences between governing systems, what you think they might or might not do?
Prof. Poast: Yes, no, it very much does tie to what we were just talking about because, as I said, a lot of times when people talk about the notion of securitization, it can be brought up in a negative sense, and the reason why it's negative sense is exactly this, that it can be a way for a government to not just have resources allocated to something, but be done in-- I don't necessarily want to say nefarious way, but basically, to be able to say, "Look, we are now going to use this issue to accomplish some other aim." Hence that's the reason why people looked at Trump's decision to ban travel from Europe, as consistent with a lot of other policies that have nothing to do with global pandemics, viruses, anything of that nature, but instead has to do with restricting economic globalization. He's had his trade war. He's had this trade war with China as well as Europe. Also border, building a wall, both figuratively and literally building a wall, but putting travel restrictions. That was one of his first major policies, which was what people call the Muslim ban. This is very much consistent with it. That's where the concern about exploitation comes in, is if someone can take a crisis situation like this, and then use it in a way to enact policies that may not even do anything about the crisis itself. These things may not stop the pandemic itself or help slow the spread in the US, but the government can utilize this as a way to achieve some other aims that they have.
Now, again, that's the one reading on it. The Trump administration has done enough things to make that a legitimate reading of it that yes, they're using this as, it's very consistent with their notion of wanting to slow down economic globalization, and so forth.
The other reading on it, though, is, as I mentioned before, is that if it's a global pandemic, it's going through these travel routes, and so we need to restrict those travel routes. That's the other thing that makes securitization an interesting concept to deal with is because a lot of times it's not clear and obvious that the government is solely doing this for some ulterior motive that it's like, "Well, no, that policy does make sense. If you think it's a pandemic." At least there's some sense to it, but yes, we can also see where it's very convenient for the government to be able to utilize it in this way.
Interviewer: Yes, you addressed the things I was going to-- These backdoor ways of getting things through. That was actually- just random side note- that really sped up a prohibition in the United States, wartime mobilization got that through. Always fun how that works. That's basically the one for the third conclusion. The number four is all those decisions that are being made, for security framing purposes or not, those can affect global balance of power relations. There's tons of things to talk on this, especially with an IR scholar. From the economic impact of the pandemic to how that could affect international institutions from trade to health, to alliances, to Inter-Alliance tensions, to even Interstate and intrastate tensions. You want to go down the pyramid and try to-?
Prof. Poast: Actually, this relates very much to something I tweeted about, the phrase I used was, "The power politics of pandemics." I think, and this is exactly where you're seeing, and it's actually very fascinating to observe, where you have China and the United States both trying to deal with this. Of course, the virus itself started in China, and that's been interesting from the standpoint of the US, rather than trying to say, "Help China with that." Using that as a way to say, "This is why we need to put China at arm's length. This is why we need to have a trade war with China. This is why we need to restrict interaction with China." Also trying to blame it on China. Even directly referring to it as a foreign virus. This is a way of trying to heighten the competition, again, going back to the ulterior motive. It's like we can use this is a way to heighten this competition with China, which is directly part of the Trump Administration's national security strategy. It's literally in the document, that they view China as a competitor.
I should add, that is not unique to the Trump administration. They may be taken in different directions, a heightened direction, but previous administrations also view China as a rising power or potential competitor. That you can see where the Trump Administration's using this as a way to deflect blame to China to say, "Look, it's their problem." Enhance maybe even so uncertainty a part of other countries about the stability of China and the extent to which you can trust China.
On the other hand, you've seen China doing something very similar, that they were very evasive about the fact that this started there. Of course, information was very difficult to obtain. They took extreme measures in order to try to control it, though that didn't seem to be effective. At the same time, what China has then done is they have tried to show where they're now more engaged in proactive response. They're trying to directly contrast that to the United States. They're saying, "Well, look, the United States is restricting this trade. The United States is blaming other countries," whereas China's saying, "We are going to, say, establish our own alternative World Health Organization. We are going to provide aid to Italy to help with this."
Now, there's question about if it's just going to Chinese nationals in Italy, but the optics are such that it looks like, "Oh, China's trying to be a good global citizen, and the US is not being a good global citizen." Again, then the US will come back and say, "Yes, but you started it, so you should be trying to be the one to clean this up." For me, from a power politics standpoint is, on the one hand, you could take the view that an existential threat like a pandemic should lead countries to band together. Then, it's like, "Look, the United States and China, two major powers, this is a threat to both, this is a threat to the population of both, they should be banding together to try to stop this."
What we're instead seeing is not banding together, but we're seeing blame-shifting. We're not seeing balancing, we're seeing blame-shifting. That's also consistent with certain theories of IR, with realism that, "Hey, this is an opportunity possibly for us to gain relative to China. We might both be hurt by this pandemic, but the US could gain relative to China." China's viewing it the same way, that, "We could gain relative to the United States."
That's what I mean by this notion of the power politics of pandemics, is that it could play out, on one hand, the states could cooperate to try to balance against this existential threat, but instead what we're seeing is they're using it as a way to gain relative to the other.
Interviewer: You mentioned that we blame China, we say, "Oh, the virus started there." China, I noticed a spokesman recently also started saying that the US started Coronavirus as an attack on China. Lots of fun, blame to go around. Inventing more every day. That was something, the fact that we're not really pulling together, but it seems to be pushing people or cut states, rather, even further apart. After Trump's impromptu and unclear announcements the other night in the Oval Office, the EU put out a short joint statement, basically, that said, "He didn't talk to us about this, and we're really appalled that he would treat allies like this."
In your book Arguing About Alliances, you talk about the difficulty of putting alliances together and how it doesn't really work out. What are some of your thoughts about how alliances withstand strains once they've been established, especially when there might be a more mercurial element in the alliance?
Prof. Poast: Absolutely. One of the things that is real important to know about alliances is that NATO is unusual. It's lesson number one. If you text someone and someone says to me, "I want to know stuff about alliances," the first thing you should say is NATO is unusual. It's unusual in a lot of ways, but one of the major ways in which it's unusual is just the duration of it. The fact that it's been around for 70 years. Most alliances do not last that long.
A big reason why they don't last that long is sometimes they are what people call "marriages of convenience". They're literally just, "We have this threat, we need to stop it." Then, once it's done, it's done, it's gone. Even when states have tried to form, say, alliances that maybe can last longer, they can be very fragile and they can fall apart eventually because of maybe changes in the interest of the state, changes in the relative power, lots of reasons like that. A colleague of mine, Ashley Leeds, has done lots of research in this area.
Alliances tend not to last that long, and they tend to be fairly fragile, to begin with. Related to that, though, and this is what I show in the book, is they're also very hard to form, right? Even in cases where it seems like they could easily create a marriage of convenience, like, "Hey, we're going to come together. We have this obvious threat. We both agree that there's a threat," they could still have difficulty forming that alliance because one of the partners might think that there's yet another threat they should be tackling, the other one doesn't want to deal with that, or they might disagree on where they need to do this. It just shows that, what I show in that book is that, yes, it can be very hard to form these alliances and those tensions don't go away. This might very well contribute to why they then, in turn, are very fragile and short-lived.
Bringing it back to the current situation, that is why people are concerned about not just this-- This is only the most recent example of President Trump enacting policies that are, say, aggressive and contrary to the interest of our allies. I mentioned the trade war, that's the biggest one, imposing tariffs on various European countries who are NATO allies. Now, again, Trump's not the only one to have done this. George W. Bush administration did this famously with steel tariffs. At the same time, it created tensions, it created issues. Now, this is yet another example of cutting off travel from Europe at least for 30 days. This is something else that people say, "Wow, the Trump Administration's really taking these measures. Will Europe, as a result, start to question the United States as an ally, as a partner?" Given that, if you look at the history, they're already in this unusual circumstance where they've been allies for so long.
Now, the counter-argument to that is to say, there's a reason why you can do these things, and it's because you know the alliance is not going to go away. That the reason why the US can get away with-- Not just under the Trump Administration, there's been a long history- and this is something else that I've tweeted about at times.
There's a long history of the United States basically using its economic leverage to, if you will, bully the Europeans. This goes back to the 1960s where the US would put pressure on Germany to say, "Whoa, you're going to hold US dollars, aren't you, because that's going to support the US dollar and the Bretton Woods system? If you don't, we might have to reconsider our troops there." That's an example of this.
Of course, I already mentioned, more recently-- Not more recently, but in the current century, the George W. Bush Administration also be more than happy to impose tariffs on our European allies. There's lots of examples of where the US has, when it felt needed to, pushed on these economic levers against our European allies. This travel restriction is just the most recent example of it. They feel that they can do it because they view it that the Europeans are dependent on the US for protection. It's like, well, European governments may not be happy about the US doing this, they may feel like, "Wait a minute, you didn't consult us about it," and the reaction of the US might be, "We didn't need to." The famous quote was by Connolly, who was Richard Nixon's secretary of treasury, and he said, "It's our currency, but it's your problem."
Interviewer: It's a very Nixonian thing to say….[Laughter]…I got one more on this. We talked about international, we talked about interstate, basically, inter-alliance. Stress on states themselves. We've seen this called China's Chernobyl because it didn't look that great coming out of this. Another story that doesn't seem to be getting as much attention is that the Coronavirus seems to be having a very bad effect in Iran. According to Middle East Twitter, especially, that some of the Iranian troops around the region had been bringing it with them. Talk about troop mobilization and spreading things. How do you see this? Even the US, which is derelict in the leadership that is expected of the US. How is this affecting the internal dynamics of these states or regions, would you say, or their perceptions as well?
Prof. Poast: This being China's Chernobyl was a point that one of my colleagues, Dolly Yang, brought up, who's very much an expert on Chinese politics. The idea being that much like with Chernobyl, where Chernobyl was really a product of ineptitude on the part of the Soviet government, and really was an accident that shouldn't have happened, and if it did happen, and it did happen, the response could have been dramatically better to have prevented what eventually became a humanitarian crisis. Same thing here that even if you view the pandemic as something that maybe the government couldn't have prevented, or at least the development, I should say, of the Coronavirus becoming an epidemic, they maybe could have taken measures sooner to have enabled both within China, as well as globally people to be able to respond to it.
The idea behind this being China's Chernobyl is that due to their inability to respond effectively, could that lead people to start to question, the legitimacy of the Chinese government? They're very keen on that. That's why the Chinese government has always put an emphasis on trying to maintain growth. It's like, "No, you can't elect us but we're going to continue. We are good for everybody. We're going to help the economy to continue to grow." There's concerns that, or at least there's views that could this be something that shows further fissures in the Chinese government? Especially when this is coming on the heels of the Hong Kong protests. That this is something that you have to imagine that the Chinese government is very sensitive to this, but that's the case within China.
Then yes, there are these other countries. I don't know all the details regarding Iran, but yes, there are a lot of other countries where it seems like, as much as we are criticizing our current government, it does seem like we have a private sector, we also have local governments and state governments who have stepped in where they felt that the national government was not stepping in. There's other countries that that apparatus is not in place, and so hence the virus hitting them could be even more devastating.
Interviewer: Would you say, really briefly, would you say that's a difference between a closed society and an open society? One of the reasons that it's called the Spanish flu is because censorship stopped reports when it broke out in Kansas and elsewhere Spain wasn't in the war. There wasn't censorship so they could actually talk about it and then they got named for it. Is that something, are closed states or societies less capable of handling these public crises like this?
Prof. Poast: It's actually in a way, almost an irony of the situation because on the one hand being an open society, especially if you're open globally, as we were just talking about, can make you more susceptible to these because they're going to come in on the trade routes and so forth. On the other hand, if then also by being open, not just globally but being open domestically allows for information to flow, then people are able to respond and so hence, you're able to see where, "Okay, maybe we're not happy with the response of the federal government. We're going to step in because we know what's happening or we hear what's happening. We're going to step in and we're going to take measures ourselves." This has been seen, just going back to what I've been spending my past few days on, has been helping to either develop contingency plans or close down certain events that are happening here on campus. Now, why is it happening at the University of Chicago? Well, we made this decision but we were able to make a good decision about this because we were aware of what other universities were doing. We were aware of what local officials were thinking. We were aware of what the sports leagues and the NBA is deciding to do, and so on. By having an open society where that information could be available, that actually made it, I think, possible for people to take steps more quickly than they would have otherwise.
I'll be completely honest, and this very well ties into the meta idea we've been talking about, but social media has been terrific for this. There's been a lot of information. I actually saw someone who tweeted about this. He said something about the current crisis actually restored his faith or revealed to him the value of effective Twitter following, because he felt he was much more aware of what was going to happen and what was happening and the potential scale of what could happen, compared to people who weren't on social media that he knows. They were like, "This was suddenly a surprise to them." I mean, everybody's been shocked by the speed, but he just had more information because of that. I think having an open society, in general helps, but then also having something like social media also helps to get that information out.
Interviewer: I can't help but ask this one after you opened the social media can of worms, because this is a major health crisis and social media has been a really good way to get proactive information out there to help people. There's also lots of concern about misinformation and disinformation, about how this, among other things might be affecting things. Do you think this will cause a big change in how we're using these systems or how these systems might operate? I know, Facebook recently labeled something as manipulated media. Any thoughts, just because you're on social media enough, about how that might change dynamics there?
Prof. Poast: Obviously, I mean, I'm not an expert on ways to stop misinformation, but I think myself, like anybody who's on social media is aware of this and indeed has seen it. I'm not sure that this event would change that in any way, but I think that-- I mean, one thing that we are seeing is, there's been a lot of discussion about how, much like with the Trump administration, at least initially, trying to play down what's been happening. A lot of discussion about how Fox News was echoing that but now as the situation escalates, it's like, "Okay, maybe we have to start changing our narrative a little bit," and so forth.
In this case, at least from my observation, I do think that yes, I've seen where there's people who are getting bad information. I've seen where there's been people who are getting misinformation, but I feel like in this particular case, if the situation's dramatic enough, even that information can filter out. I mean, at the end of the day, even if you believe the virus is not a big deal, it's just like the common cold, you know that the NBA shut down, [laughs] and you know that the NCAA Tournament got canceled, and that's gone on since I think 1939. They've held it every year. Even during World War II, it was very different then, they didn't it all over the country, but it's like, even if you're someone who's sitting there and going, like, "No, I don't think it's a big deal," you got to go, "Wait, the NCAA just canceled their tournament, the NBA." If it's a big enough event, it's hard for any false information to dominate the narrative.
Interviewer: As much help as social media is providing, do you think it's doing anything harmful or contributing to what the World Health Organization has called this infodemic?
Prof. Poast: Yes. I mean, absolutely I've seen it. I've seen where there's misinformation out there and it's not just coming from social media. Again, if you think about the Trump administration arguing, or at least initially trying to say it's not a big deal, and then that been echoed by, say Fox News, then yes, definitely, there's been an issue and that's made it more difficult for people who are trying to prevent this crisis and prevent this pandemic.
Having seen that, I do think that after a while, you can only provide so much misinformation about the pandemic itself. That after a while, they're going to observe that the NBA has shut down or suspended, not shutdown, they're suspended. They're going to see that the NCAA Tournament has been canceled. The bigger concern then at that point likely becomes misinformation about how to deal with it. Then people providing this information about individuals who have cases of it or people dying, and so on and so forth. That's something that quite honestly, again, I'm not a public health expert in terms of that, I'm not an expert on misinformation, but it's definitely something that I observe. I think that anyone who's on social media does see that.
Interviewer: I'm just thinking, could it be used, because one of the things mentioned by that world health report is that they have to push back against trolls as well. Trolls do play a very important role in cyber warfare, which has become rather topical this decade, or the past two decades now I guess. Do you think contributing to hysteria, things like that? That's an old propaganda tool when trying to stir up problems behind the lines. Do you see that as being a problem? I know you think that the good information will drive out the bad if there's enough of it. Do you see any potential for that being really destabilizing?
Prof. Poast: The ability for it to cause hysteria?
Interviewer: Yes, especially if it's seeded by state or non-state actors.
Prof. Poast: Yes. I mean, absolutely. I think you don't need to look any further than the stock market. That's the thing that the stock markets response, that was one of the biggest problems with President Trump's address the other night ,was that the markets did not react very well to it at all. It's not hysteria but it's definitely panic. Yes, it can happen, and I think that's why you're now seeing, you had the Trump administration make its address the other night, it's now doing a news conference because it recognizes that look, it's got a try.
Now the question is, is it going to create more problems? That's actually been, and I think this raises a bigger point, which is that the trolls on social media, yes, they can spread this misinformation and that can make it difficult for local health providers, so forth, I'm sure of that, but from my vantage point, I think the biggest source of panic is when the leadership is unable to demonstrate that they have a hand on the situation. You saw that the other night with the reaction to people to Trump's address. That, to me, was the biggest panic I had seen, was people being like, "Wait, do they even know what they're doing? Why are they shutting this down?" and just as you mentioned, airlines weren't really aware of what to do. The European governments aren't really aware of what to do, not even within an hour, they had to clarify what he meant. Those were the things that to me, raised the biggest sources of panic more so than a troll online or this. It's not to say they don't have an effect, but in terms of that widespread panic, a lot of times it can be the governments doing it to themselves.
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