The essential governance problem in March 2020 in Western countries was the overwhelming demand of the vast majority of the population to do something dramatic in response to their fear. There was a clamour to be ‘led to safety’ by populations scared to death by images in the social media and the regular media of the effects of a new virus. In that wave of panic, the many safeguards that normally prevent terrible and illegal policies from being taken were overwhelmed. To prevent a repeat we should consider a new World Anti-Hysteria Organisation (WAHO) tasked specifically with observing mass hysteria and countering large outbreaks.
The background is that almost every institutional barrier imaginable was set against giving in to the mass hysteria of March 2020, particularly in the more ‘medically advanced scientific countries’ like the UK and the Netherlands. Those barriers included the scientific consensus of decades, blue prints for policy, constitutional laws against limiting personal freedoms, laws requiring costs to be balanced against benefits in the case of mass medical experiments, and the long habit of wide consultation in times of crisis. All those barriers failed across the Western world: neither science, nor law, nor habit held the tide of mass hysteria. So pretty much everything Western nation states have in their institutional arsenal to prevent something as self-destructive as lockdowns was overwhelmed.
Since the problem was an international wave of emotions that gelled into mass hysteria, we should consider that to avoid a repeat we need an international organisation specifically designed to counter that phenomenon. After all, we have other national and international organisations to deal with “natural or man-made disasters”. Natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes have dedicated national and international agencies monitoring them and setting up preventative measures. Man-made disasters for which we have dedicated institutions include terrorism, crime, chemical spills, and food poisoning. Given the enormous devastation wrought by the policies pursued in the mass hysteria of the last 12 months, we could add mass hysteria to the list of man-made disasters for which we have a recognised international agency to monitor and combat.
How would a WAHO work and what should it have done in January-March 2020?
The organisation’s core expertise would come from social psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The study of mass hysteria is a recognised sub-discipline in those fields, and that knowledge can now be marshaled into policy action via the WAHO.
Importantly, mass-hysteria is not actually difficult to spot if you know what to look for:
- The use of fear images as proof. Mass-hysteria is essentially emotional and thus is fueled by images and stories that evoke strong emotions. Those images, whether fabricated or real, are then shared around very quickly and obsessed about. The use of images as proof for a fear is easy to monitor.
- Many new adherents. Mass hysteria is like a wave, so it has a lot of very recent new adherents to a fear story. Whether a fear story has a lot of new adherents who are spreading it in their networks and whose own focus has narrowed to the new fear is fairly easy to measure.
- The unthinking call for a sacrifice. Mass-hysteria very quickly invokes the idea that a large sacrifice will help against the supposed threat. What typifies an hysteria is the lack of reflective thought on whether the sacrifice is reasonably going to help. That lack of reflective thought is easy to monitor and measure because the need for a sacrifice is invariably argued on the basis of the perceived size of the threat, not the mechanics of the supposed solution.
- Amplification via media. Mass-hysteria is a mass-phenomenon that spreads via modern media. The networks in which it spreads are international and much of the attention space in which the spread happens is for sale, allowing manipulation. Amplification, deliberate or spontaneous, can be monitored (think of numbers of new twitter accounts with particular messages).
- Political posturing and manipulation. Mass-events always involve the opportunity for politicians to obtain some power at the expense of others, so very quickly in a mass-hysteria you will get politicians promising solutions, whether totally fanciful or not. Political posturing can further fan the hysteria and cement its policy trajectory. This too can be easily monitored as the promises and manipulation take place in the media.
Each of these five elements were totally visible during the corona-hysteria of early 2020. An international organisation dedicated to watch for these signs would have picked it up early January at the latest. I say this because January 2020 was the time the American commentator Jeffrey Tucker picked it up. It took me a bit longer: that there was an hysteria became clear to me in February 2020, but its scale and power only in March 2020.
The first task of the WAHO is thus to monitor for mass hysteria, which requires a system of identifying new fear stories, monitoring the bigger stories, and tracking the spread across media networks. This requires the monitoring of most of the world’s media, including social media. It needs to combine that monitoring with the ability to analyse the information in that ‘media weather system’. That requires several areas of technical expertise, including being able to identify key phrases and images that are the core of a new mass hysteria. It also involves being able to map networks and track the spread of the core stories and images within them in real time.
The first task is thus a media-watch type of task involving Big Data analysis skills so as to be able to identify and track mass-hysteria around the world. This task treats the media around the world as an integrated social weather system, watching for gathering storms. Given the enormity of the media system, it would require a large organisation to monitor and analyse it, which in turn means it should probably share the load of that task with other existing organisations also watching the media system (like anti-terror or anti-crime organisations).
The second task of the WAHO is to predict the likely trajectory of a mass hysteria, much as weather bureaus predict the trajectory and growth of hurricanes. Since mass hysteria happens within days and weeks, this means the predictive machinery of the WAHO has to have prediction models up and running in real time, able to predict ahead within hours of new outbreaks. This kind of task requires similar skills and data-systems involved in weather modelling: just like weather modelling there would have to be constant observation of the most important nodes in the international media system (like major news agencies), combined with background data predictive of the trajectory, such as levels of inequality in areas, levels of political tensions, trust in various institutions, etc. This task thus combines high-level modelling skills with high-level Big Data analysis skills, for instance needing the ability to spot and track phrases in many different languages in real time.
In this second task there a lot of scope for new research techniques not yet used in this field. The tracking systems talked about above are new and require a lot of R&D. One can also imagine the use of focus groups and expert panels though that can be asked in real time to rate how emotionally powerful a new scare story or set of images is. The degree to which a story ‘resonates’ is intensely dependent on culture and recent international developments, so exactly the kind of thing humans are good at judging but where automated Artificial Intelligence systems would struggle. Hence a combination of existing and new techniques might be needed in the second task.
The third task of the WAHO is scientifically the hardest, which is to judge whether the policy direction of a mass-hysteria is destructive or constructive. This task needs several areas of expertise that are yet to fully develop, so we are talking about new scientific and institutional methods.
To be able to say whether a developing mass hysteria is destructive or constructive requires taking a real stance on the content of the policies demanded by a mass hysteria. Preferably one wants to make that judgment even before it has become obvious to many what the policy direction is, so one need to predict a direction and then judge it. Predicting a direction is obviously hard and requires lot of area-specific expertise.
It is also hard to spot whether an identified policy direction is bad because not all mass hysteria is dysfunctional. The mass hysteria that breaks out when a country is invaded by a neighbour is for instance functional and needed in order to mobilise the resources of a country towards a foreign invader. Mass hysteria when a tsunami is spotted is similarly both inevitable and has the useful role of getting people to get out of the way. One needs knowledge of policy, human behaviour, how political systems “normally react”, and a measure of ultimate output that can be used to assign “good” or “bad” to any outcome to judge particular policy orientation.
Whether an hysteria is moving towards destructive policy thus requires broad scientific expertise and political expertise. Because there are so many potential sources of mass hysteria, the WAHO would probably not be able to have all the expertise in-house but would have to be able to “call upon” independent thinking scientists from many areas. Such a system of “scientists on call” is not hard to envisage because it is already in place in many countries and can work reasonably well. Indeed, it worked well at the start of the pandemic in the UK and Netherlands where the governments were given totally sound advice at the start of the pandemic, namely not to lock down. Unfortunately, it was advice the politicians had to ignore because of political pressure, which then forced them into attacking independent scientists because they were a political threat.
So this third task can be done with a combination of specialist “scientists on call” together with more broad scientific and policy expertise in-house who do the regular predictions on how political systems are likely to react to particular policy pressures.
The fourth task is to counter the biggest mass-hysteria threats when they are deemed to develop into destructive policy pressures. This minimally involves an alert-system for governments, populations and independent institutions. That by design will have the nature of regular updates on new threats, retractions, and such. Some of the advice can be confidential depending on the political sensitivity of the topic involved in the mass hysteria.
A more ambitious task would be for the WAHO to counter world-wide mass hysteria events. Since mass hysteria grows inside the media system, that would require the ability to influence the media, such as via buying up advertising space, mandating media providers to run certain counter-stories, informing media-providers of the judgment that particular things are mass hysteria, and coordinating with governments that have been persuaded of the severity of the threat. This requires public relations and coordination expertise that already exists inside many governments and organisations, so this is not technically hard to envisage.
A real threat to the usefulness of the WAHO is that it could itself become a source of nuisance and hysteria in order to attract funding and attention to itself. One does not want the WAHO to give dire warnings every week itself in order to make its director look powerful. To avoid that threat, it would probably be handy to separate the WAHO warning and coordination systems politically and organisationally from its other tasks. Indeed, perhaps one needs an additional independent layer in between the WAHO and that warning system that is set up to judge whether the warnings the WAHO wants to send out really make sense (like a small council of wise women that would need to be persuaded a threat is big enough to pass on). That intermediary layer would have to be able to convene and judge very quickly though so it really would have to consist of fairly quick judgments.
Suppose now we had a WAHO up and running in December 2019. What could it have done?
The WAHO should have been able to spot the hysteria when it was small but developing inside China by the end of 2019. It would have set up an hysteria threat level monitor for that particular issue, meaning it would automatically scan for its spread. As the hysteria got really big mid-January, the WAHO would have had to move fast on many fronts:
- It would have had to independently identify the policy direction, thus spotting the likely calls for shutting down international travel, lockdowns of populations, and quarantine rules. This would have required a bit of medical expertise, but of a kind that was widely available then.
- It would have had to make a judgment on that policy direction based on expertise available to it. This too would gotten it the ‘right answer’ in late January give the consensus in the medical literature at that point and the content of the blue prints for policy actions in the hands of Western governments.
- It would have needed to make a judgment on the likely scale of the destruction if bad policies were enacted. It would have taken a mega-genius to guess the degree to which the whole world political system would be blown off-course by lockdowns, so that is not realistic to expect a WAHO to see late January 2020 (or even in April 2020). Yet, it took only reasonably independent people to spot the large scale devastation of lockdowns to various groups and to relate that to possible benefits.
- It would have alerted governments, media, and institutions that the direction of travel of the mass hysteria was towards destructive policies, including the potential need to organise media against that direction.
Mid-February 2020 all the alarms would have had to buzz inside WAHO and a general mobilisation of its resources and expertise would have had to occur as the scale and force of the mass-hysteria became clear. It would have needed to organise massive media-pushback. It would have had to organise counter-groups of experts to identify the likely losers of lockdowns and get those groups involved in opposing them. It would have set up coordinating bodies between the governments that still thought the same, and get them to realise the dangers and how individually they could not easily stand against the hysteria developing inside their own countries.
Late-February, early March, the WAHO would have had to set a huge media-machinery into motion to detect manipulation of both media and the population (such as by the Italian and Chinese authorities), and then counter it as best as possible. That kind of media machine would have had to exist already and thus be the media machine available to the governments then still in the anti-lockdown camps. There would have had to be full-on counter-moves to the scaremongering by scientific journals like the Lancet, requiring ammunition from WAHO “on call” expert groups to quickly spot the mistakes and debatable judgments calls by those journals. There would have had to be immediate pushback against other organisations like the WHO when they were caving into political pressures. There would have had to be warnings towards media owners about their responsibility not to fan the flames of the mass hysteria. Etc. Basically, the WAHO would have had to be on full war footing against the mass hysteria.
Would this have helped? I think it probably would not have prevented North Italy from copying the Chinese because that happened too quickly for a counter-movement to be organised. Yet I do think it reasonable to believe a WAHO would have spotted all the deliberate misinformation and manipulation by governments, using that to shore up the anti-alliance. Also, its machinery of media-watching should have been useful to spot where the biggest damage was being done. Most promising though, I think a coordinating role with the anti-lockdown countries would have set those governments institutionally against lockdowns, committing them against lockdowns via their open coalition against them. I think that would have had a good chance of keeping the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands out of the lockdown zones.
The hope is thus that a WAHO would have been enough to prevent much of Europe and then places like India from copying lockdowns, restricting the mistake of lockdowns to a few early months in some countries.