Fear Multipliers in Sierra Leone

There was a really interesting article in the NY Times the other day on an outbreak of blisters in a rural Sierra Leone county. That alone is cool enough, but the article focuses on how the locals responded to the outbreak. The author blames a combination of journalism, listless government and witchcraft, but I wonder what the breakdown of blame really is.

The Inquirer, a Sierra Leone news site cited on ProMed, an epidemic-alert service, reported that “the wild spread of the contagious skin disease” was taking over a rural county, with 75 people affected. It quoted local residents blaming polluted water, “poisonous bacteria” or “contamination of the underground,” and said a government minister had “warned people with the disease to cease all movement.”

In fact, a careful reading of the article suggested that local doctors had identified a plausible cause and suggested a sensible solution. But that point was obscured by the purple “Fear Grips City” prose.

So, based upon that reading, where would you place a good portion of the blame?

This is an important point because it shows the very real possibility for a disconnect between the real story and the reported story, even in places like Sierra Leone. Now, imagine your local newspaper, fighting for readers against other papers, Internet news providers and bloggers, all while the advertising funds that have paid them for decades are drying up.

We’ve heard of “force multipliers” before, right? They are essentially things one can add to an action that increase the effectiveness of the action exponentially. The theory is usually applied to military or police actions, but I think it’s an effective term in public information as well. Social media influencers are force multipliers, for example.

The thing is, though, force multipliers don’t always have to be helpful. Take a situation where the public is already freaked by a series of unexplained blisters and add headlines about fear gripping cities. I don’t believe that panic normally happens, but with the right mix of a scary situation and “overwrought journalism,” and, well, you get the idea.

The story of the mysterious blisters is actually quite interesting, so definitely take a look at the original article, if you get a chance.